The History of the Plague: Every Major Epidemic in an Animated Map

All of us have tried to come to grips with the coronavirus in different ways. Here on Open Culture we've featured online courses to get you conversant in the science around the pandemic, but readers of this site will also have sought out the most pertinent works of history and literature. That goes especially for those in need of reading material while in states of quarantine or lockdown (self-imposed or otherwise), and any list of recommended books must include Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus' The Plague. (I recently wrote about the experience of reading that last in Korea, where I live, for the Los Angeles Review of Books.) Both fictionalize local outbreaks of the bubonic plague, but how far and wide did that horrific and much-mythologized disease actually spread?

You can see exactly how far and wide in the animated historical map above, created by a Youtuber called EmperorTigerstar. It mainly covers the period of 431 BC to 1353 AD, during most of which the plague looks to have occurred in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa with some regularity. Up until the 1330s, the outbreaks stay small enough that you may have to view the map in fullscreen mode to ensure that you even see them.




But even the most casual students of history know what happened next: the best-known occurrence of the Black Death, whose peak lasted from 1347 to 1351 and which claimed somewhere between 75 to 200 million lives (including roughly half of Europe's entire population). Rendered, suitably, in black, the plague's spread comes eventually to look on the map like a sea of ink splashed violently across multiple continents.

The plague hardly died with the 1350s, a fact this map acknowledges. It would, writes EmperorTigerstar, "take years to go away, and even then there would be local outbreaks in individual cities for centuries." These Black Death aftershocks, "big in their own right," include the Great Plague of Milan in the 1630s, the Great Plague of Seville in the 1640s, and the Great Plague of London in the 1660s — the subject of Defoe's novel. When Camus wrote The Plague in 1947, the Algerian city of Oran in which he set its story had experienced its last outbreak of the disease just three years before (at least the fifth such experience in its history). Though harrowing stories are even now coming out of places like modern-day Milan, the coronavirus has yet to match the gruesome deadliness of the plagues featured in either of these books. But unless we understand how epidemics afflicted humanity in the past, we can hardly handle them properly in the present.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Artist Tricks Google Maps Into Creating a Virtual Traffic Jam, Using a Little Red Wagon & 99 Smartphones

Sometimes the miraculous time-saving conveniences we’ve come to depend on can have the opposite effect, as artist Simon Wickert recently demonstrated, ambling about the streets of Berlin at a Huck Finn-ish pace, towing a squeaky-wheeled red wagon loaded with 99 secondhand smartphones.

Each phone had a SIM card, and all were running the Google Maps app.

The result?




A near-instantaneous "virtual traffic jam” on Google Maps, even though bicyclists seem to vastly outnumber motorists along Wickert's route.

As a Google spokesperson told 9to5 Google’s Ben Schoon shortly after news of Wickert’s stunt began to spread:

Traffic data in Google Maps is refreshed continuously thanks to information from a variety of sources, including aggregated anonymized data from people who have location services turned on and contributions from the Google Maps community.

In other words, had you checked your phone before heading out to the Baumhaus an der Mauer (Treehouse on the Wall), the Urban Art Clash GalleryOMA’s Café, or some other spot close to Wickert’s little red wagon’s trail of terror—like Google’s Berlin office—you might have thought twice about your intended path, or even going at all, seeing bridges and streets change from a free and easy green to an ostensibly gridlocked red.

As long as Wickert kept moving, he was able to continue fooling the algorithm into thinking 99 humans were all using their phone's Maps app for navigational purposes in a small, congested area.

Obviously, a couple of buses could easily be responsible for carrying 99 smartphones in active use, but it’s unlikely those phones owners would be consulting the map app in the passenger seats, when they could be scrolling through Instagram or playing Candy Crush.

Wickert also discovered that his virtual traffic jam disappeared whenever a car passed his wagonload.

The spokesperson who engaged with Schoon put a good-natured face on Google’s response to Wickert’s hack, saying, “We’ve launched the ability to distinguish between cars and motorcycles in several countries including India, Indonesia and Egypt, though we haven’t quite cracked traveling by wagon. We appreciate seeing creative uses of Google Maps like this as it helps us make maps work better over time.”

Meanwhile, the artist’s puckish stunt, which he describes as a “performance and installation,” seems anchored by sincere philosophical questions, as evidenced by the inclusion on his website of the below excerpt from "The Power of Virtual Maps," urban researcher Moritz Ahlert’s recent essay in the Hamburger Journal für Kulturanthropologie, :

The advent of Google’s Geo Tools began in 2005 with Maps and Earth, followed by Street View in 2007. They have since become enormously more technologically advanced. Google’s virtual maps have little in common with classical analog maps. The most significant difference is that Google’s maps are interactive  – scrollable, searchable and zoomable. Google’s map service has fundamentally changed our understanding of what a map is, how we interact with maps, their technological limitations, and how they look aesthetically.

In this fashion, Google Maps makes virtual changes to the real city. Applications such as Airbnb and Carsharing have an immense impact on cities: on their housing market and mobility culture, for instance. There is also a major impact on how we find a romantic partner, thanks to dating platforms such as Tinder, and on our self-quantifying behavior, thanks to the nike jogging app. Or map-based food delivery apps like deliveroo or foodora. All of these apps function via interfaces with Google Maps and create new forms of digital capitalism and commodification. Without these maps, car sharing systems, new taxi apps, bike rental systems and online transport agency services such as Uber would be unthinkable. An additional mapping market is provided by self-driving cars; again, Google has already established a position for itself.

With its Geo Tools, Google has created a platform that allows users and businesses to interact with maps in a novel way. This means that questions relating to power in the discourse of cartography have to be reformulated. But what is the relationship between the art of enabling and techniques of supervision, control and regulation in Google’s maps? Do these maps function as dispositive nets that determine the behavior, opinions and images of living beings, exercising power and controlling knowledge? Maps, which themselves are the product of a combination of states of knowledge and states of power, have an inscribed power dispositive. Google’s simulation-based map and world models determine the actuality and perception of physical spaces and the development of action models.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join Ayun’s company Theater of the Apes in New York City this March for her book-based variety series, Necromancers of the Public Domain, and the world premiere of Greg Kotis’ new musical, I AM NOBODY. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Humans Migrated Across The Globe Over 200,000 Years: An Animated Look

Coverage of the refugee crisis peaked in 2015. By the end of the year, note researchers at the University of Bergen, “this was one of the hottest topics, not only for politicians, but for participants in the public debate,” including far-right xenophobes given megaphones. Whatever their intent, Daniel Trilling argues at The Guardian, the explosion of refugee stories had the effect of framing “these newly arrived people as others, people from ‘over there,’ who had little to do with Europe itself and were strangers.”

Such a characterization ignores the crucial context of Europe’s presence in nearly every part of the world over the past several centuries. And it frames mass migration as extraordinary, not the norm. The crisis aspect is real, the result of dangerously accelerated movement of capital and climate change. But mass movements of people seeking better conditions, safety, opportunity, etc. may be the oldest and most common feature of human history, as the Science Insider video shows above.




The yellow arrows that fly across the globe in the dramatic animation make it seem like early humans moved by bullet train. But when consequential shifts in climate occurred at a glacial pace—and economies were built on what people carried on their backs—mass migrations happened over the span of thousands of years. Yet they happened continuously throughout last 200,000 to 70,000 years of human history, give or take. We may never know what drove so many of our distant ancestors to spread around the world.

But how can we know what routes they took to get there? “Thanks to the amazing work of anthropologists and paleontologists like those working on National Geographic’s Genographic Project,” Science Insider explains, “we can begin to piece together the story of our ancestors.” The Genographic Project was launched by National Geographic in 2005, “in collaboration with scientists and universities around the world.” Since then, it has collected the genetic data of over 1 million people, “with a goal of revealing patterns of human migration.”

The project assures us it is “anonymous, nonmedical, and nonprofit.” Participants submitted their own DNA with National Geographic’s “Geno” ancestry kits (and may still do so until next month). They can receive a “deep ancestry” report and customized migration map; and they can learn how closely they are related to “historical geniuses,” a category that, for some reason, includes Jesse James.

Do projects like these veer close to recreating the “race science” of previous centuries? Are they valid ways of reconstructing the “human story” of ancestry, as National Geographic puts it? Critics like science journalist Angela Saini are skeptical. “DNA testing cannot tell you that,” she says in an interview on NPR, but it can “make us believe that identity is biological, when identity is cultural.” National Geographic seems to disavow associations between genetics and race, writing, “science defines you by your DNA, society defines you by the color of your skin.” But it does so at the end of a video about a group of people bonding over their similar features.

Despite the significance modern humans have ascribed to variations in phenotype, race is a culturally defined category and not a scientific one. argues Joseph L. Graves, professor of biological sciences at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering.. "Everything we know about our genetics has proven that we are far more alike than we are different. If more people understood that, it would be easier to debunk the myth that people of a certain race are ‘naturally’ one way or another,” or that refugees and asylum seekers are dangerous others instead of just like every other human who has moved around the world over the last 200,000 years.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The First High-Resolution Map of America’s Food Supply Chain: How It All Really Gets from Farm to Table

The phrase "farm to table" has enjoyed vogue status in American dining long enough to be facing displacement by an even trendier successor, "farm to fork." These labels reflect a new awareness — or an aspiration to awareness — of where, exactly, the food Americans eat comes from. A vast and fertile land, the United States produces a great deal of its own food, but given the distance of most of its population centers from most of its agricultural centers, it also has to move nearly as great a deal of food over long domestic distances. Here we have the very first high-resolution map of that food supply chain, created by researchers at the University of Illinois studying "food flows between counties in the United States."

"Our map is a comprehensive snapshot of all food flows between counties in the U.S. – grains, fruits and vegetables, animal feed, and processed food items," writes Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Megan Konar in an explanatory post at The Conversation. (The top version shows the total tons of food moved, and the bottom one is broken down to the county scale.)




"All Americans, from urban to rural are connected through the food system. Consumers all rely on distant producers; agricultural processing plants; food storage like grain silos and grocery stores; and food transportation systems." The map visualizes such journeys as that of a shipment of corn, which "starts at a farm in Illinois, travels to a grain elevator in Iowa before heading to a feedlot in Kansas, and then travels in animal products being sent to grocery stores in Chicago."

Konar and her collaborators' research arrives at a few surprising conclusions, such as that Los Angeles county is both the largest shipper and receiver of food in the U.S. Not only that, but almost all of the nine counties "most central to the overall structure of the food supply network" are in California. This may surprise anyone who has laid eyes on the sublimely huge agricultural landscapes of the Midwest "Cornbelt." But as Konar notes, "Our estimates are for 2012, an extreme drought year in the Cornbelt. So, in another year, the network may look different." And of the grain produced in the Midwest, much "is transported to the Port of New Orleans for export. This primarily occurs via the waterways of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers."

Konar also warns of troubling frailties: "The infrastructure along these waterways—such as locks 52 and 53—are critical, but have not been overhauled since their construction in 1929," and if they were to fail, "commodity transport and supply chains would be completely disrupted." The analytical minds at Hacker News have been discussing the implications of the research shown on this map, including whether the U.S. food supply chain is really, as one commenter put it, "very brittle and contains many weak points." The American Society of Civil Engineers, as Konar tells Food & Wine, has given the country's civil engineering infrastructure a grade of D+, which at least implies considerable room for improvement. But against what from some angles look like long odds, food keeps getting from American farms to American tables — and American forks, American mouths, American stomachs, and so on.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Difference Between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England: A (Pre-Brexit) Video Explains

I once played in a New York pub band with an Englishman, a Northern Irishman, and a Scotsman. This is not the setup for a joke. (We weren't that bad!) But I had questions. Were they all from different countries or different parts of one country called Britain, or Great Britain, or the grander-sounding United Kingdom?

British history could be a contentious subject in such company, and no wonder given that the violence of the Empire began at home, or with the neighboring people who were absorbed—sometimes, partly, but not always—against their will into a larger entity. So, what to call that territory of the crown which once claimed one fourth of the world as its own property?




CGP Grey, maker of the YouTube explainer above, aims to clear things up in five minutes, offering his own spin on British imperial history along the way. The United Kingdom is a “country of countries that contains inside it four coequal and sovereign nations,” England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. “You can call them all British,” says Grey, but “it’s generally not recommended as the four countries generally don’t like each other.”

Like it or not, however, they are all British citizens of “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Still confused? Well, Britain and the United Kingdom name the same country. But “Great Britain” is a geographical term that includes Scotland, England, and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. As a “geographical rather than a political term,” Great Britain sounds silly when used to describe nationality.

But it gets a bit more complicated. All of the countries located within Great Britain have neighboring islands that are not part of Great Britain, such as the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney Islands, and Isles of Anglesey and Wight. Ireland is a geographical term for the land mass encompassing two nations: Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, or the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which—as you know—is decidedly not.

All of these countries and “countries of countries” are part of the European Union, says Grey, at which point it becomes clear that the video, posted in 2011, did not anticipate any such thing as Brexit. Nonetheless, this information holds true for the moment, though that ugly saga is sure to reach some resolution eventually, at which point, who knows what new maps, independence referenda, and border wars will arise, or resurrect, on the British Isles.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Behold the New York City Street Tree Map: An Interactive Map That Catalogues the 700,000 Trees Shading the Streets of New York City

It may sound odd, but one of the things I miss most about living in New York City is the ability to hop on a bus or train, or walk a few blocks from home, and end up lounging in a forest, the cacophony of traffic reduced to a dim hum, squirrels bounding around, birds twittering away above. Such urban respites are plentiful in NYC thanks to its 10,542 acres of forested land, “about half as much as the Congaree Swamp in South Carolina,” notes James Barron at The New York Times, in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country.

“Most of the city’s forest is deep in parks”—in Central Park, of course, and also Prospect Park and Riverside, and dozens of smaller oases, and the lush Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. The city’s forests are subject to the usual pressures other wooded areas face: climate change, invasive species, etc.




They are also dependent on a well-funded Parks Department and nonprofits like the Natural Areas Conservancy for the preservation and upkeep not only of the large parks but of the trees that shade city streets in all five boroughs.

Luckily, the city and nonprofit groups have been working together to plan for what the conservancy’s senior ecologist, Helen Forgione, calls “future forests,” using big data to map out the best paths for urban woodland. The NYC Parks department has been busy compiling figures, and you can find all of their tree stats at the New York City Street Tree Map, which “brings New York City’s urban forest to your fingertips. For the first time,” the Parks department writes, “you have access to information about every street tree in New York City.”

Large forested parks on the interactive map appear as flat green fields—the department has not counted each individual tree in Central Park. But the map gives us fine, granular detail when it comes to street trees, allowing users to zoom in to every intersection and click on colored dots that represent each tree, for example lining Avenue D in the East Village or Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. You can search specific locations or comb through citywide statistics for the big picture. At the time of this writing, the project has mapped 694,249 trees, much of that work undertaken by volunteers in the TreesCount! 2015 initiative.

There are many more trees yet to map, and the department’s forestry team updates the site daily. Out of 234 species identified, the most common is the London Planetree, representing 12% of the trees on the map. Other popular species include the Littleleaf Linden, Norway Maple, Pin Oak, and Ginko. Some other stats show the ecological benefits of urban trees, including the amount of energy conserved (667,590,884 kWh, or $84,279,933.06) and amount of carbon dioxide reduced (612,100 tons).

Visit the New York City Street Tree Map for the full, virtual tour of the city’s trees, and marvel—if you haven’t experienced the city’s vibrant tree life firsthand—at just how green the empire city’s streets really are.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Evolution of the World Map: An Inventive Infographic Shows How Our Picture of the World Changed Over 1,800 Years

For about 190 years, humanity has known what the world looks like. Or rather, humanity has known the shape and size of the land masses that rise up above the oceans, as well as where those land masses stand in relation to one another. For generation upon generation, we've all grown up seeing visual depictions of this knowledge in the form of the standard world map — distorted, of course, usually by Mercator projection, given the impossibility of turning a three-dimensional globe into a two-dimensional image with perfect accuracy. We can call it to mind (or up on our phones) whenever we need it. But what did the world look like before we knew what it looked like? Thanks to a Redditor who goes by PisseGuri82, we can now take in, at a glance, humanity's image of the world as it evolved over the past two millennia.

This Shape of the World infographic begins in 150 AD with the world map used by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, Egypt, "the first to use positions of latitude and longitude based on astronomical observations." Not that those observations produced anything immediately resembling an ancestor of the map we remember from classroom walls growing up, but it certainly must have marked an improvement on the guesswork and pure fantasy used in even earlier times.




World maps from the medieval period, such as the one included on the diagram created by an unknown French monk in 1050, were meant "not to explain the world but the Bible." Hence its focus on such Biblical parts of the world as Jerusalem, the Red Sea, and even the Garden of Eden.

Just over a century later, a map by Italy's Muhammed al-Idrisi employed the more objective method of calculating distances by what travelers and merchants told him about how long it took them to reach the distant lands they visited. Despite its "recognizable and detailed Eurasia and Northern Africa," however, it still makes for a vague (and, needless to say, hardly complete) approximation of the world. Only in 1529, with the empire-minded Spanish Crown's official and secret "master map," updated "by Spanish explorers on pain of death," do we arrive at a world map that would remind any of us of the ones we use in the 21st century.

Subsequent developments came from such advances as the aforementioned Mercator projection, invented in 1569 in the Netherlands and refined in England 30 years later, as well as the invention of the marine chronometer in 1778. The final map in the chart, an 1832 edition by Germany's Adolf Stieler in which "only the unexplored Polar regions are missing or depicted inaccurately," may look almost exactly like the world maps we use today. But the evolution certainly hasn't stopped: with the ever more detailed digital maps and satellite imagery that now feature in our world maps, our ability to perceive the Earth still improves every day. Our descendants 2000 years hence may well place themselves in a world we would hardly recognize. See the full-size "Shape of the World" infographic here. Make sure you click on the image once you open the page, and then you can see it in a larger format.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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