Human-readable chicken scratch 803 times since March 2002
Hello, I’m Minh Nguyen (though I style myself Minh Nguyễn, with all the wonderful diacritics), a graduate of St. Columban School and St. Xavier High School and currently a sophomore at Stanford University. Passing by my dorm room, you might’ve seen me staring at the monitor, the monitor mutually staring back, as I type… click… type… click— blog…
It feels wrong to leave my blog hanging on such a brief note about new employment, especially now that I no longer have to keep nearly as many secrets about what I do in front of the computer screen. A blog post authored on December 31st is all but guaranteed to be a year in review. But I’ve procrastinated on updating this blog for well over a year, so you’ll get more than you bargained for.
To me, the most important feature of these map libraries is that they’re based on OpenStreetMap data. Libraries like Mapbox’s are a conduit for the OSM community’s unparalleled, mostly labor-of-love mapping to find their way into the lives of ordinary folks who don’t obsess over maps. I have a lot more to say about why OSM matters, but it would take this post far into manifesto territory, so that’ll have to wait until next year.
Last year, I got an opportunity to share ideas for nurturing the OSM community at, of all places, the United Nations headquarters in New York. It was my first time I’d ever spoken at a conference – I guess it showed. The conference scene also took me to Mexico City and San Diego, where I introduced a small sliver of the Wikimedia community to OSM and its community. The Wikimedia and OSM projects are drawing much closer together, and we’ll finally start to see some of the concrete benefits of that relationship in the new year.
AVIM, my Vietnamese input method extension for Firefox, gained some long-needed features this year, like support for multisyllabic loan words. But the future of that beautiful extension is in doubt, because Mozilla is dead-set on sunsetting the only browser extension platform that’s more than a toy. It’s a pity; the end of AVIM in Firefox will chip away at Vietnamese speakers’ ability to use their native language as a first-class citizen on the Web.
So it’s with mixed feelings that I careen into 2017, but only because 2015–16 was so swell. I’m sure you’re already looking forward to my next last-minute update in approximately one year.
Years ago, I started to collect government-issued road maps and atlases, procuring them for free mostly by stopping by roadside welcome centers and signing their guestbooks. Cartotourism requires a bit of tact: you don’t just waltz in and demand a government handout; you have to fein profound interest in the captivating state you’ve just entered. (Under the “Purpose of Visit” column: “Just passing through.”)
Admittedly it’s a bit perverse that I would care so much about the free map amid all the signs proudly advertising free coffee, Coke, or orange juice. But evidently I’m not alone. For me, the maps proved useful during road trips, even after a GPS device displaced the family radar detector. After hours of counting cows and spotting barn ads along the most remote stretches of I-65, even the highway department could somehow keep me entertained. Something about the way they managed to cram so many names and symbols onto one large sheet of paper.
This summer, the collection grew to 58 specimens issued by 27 states, four national parks, four counties, plus Ontario and the former Metro Toronto. Some are nearly 30 years old and have the tears to prove it. The collection sports two official bike maps, a beautiful “agritourism” map, and a completely bilingual map. (Ontario’s is half in French; Louisiana’s wishes it were.) Naturally, the two maps of Texas are by far the largest in my possession. Over the years, I’ve also lost a few maps, including one that proclaimed, “There’s More Than Corn in Indiana!” Indeed: I picked it up at a rest stop nestled amid soybean fields.
Occasionally, I try to do something more interesting with the collection than keep it in a burgeoning shoebox. This time, I made it into a single U.S. map, fashioning states out of the maps they issued. It’s a map made of maps:
You’ll notice that the arrangement is rather uneven. My collection is heavily skewed towards the Southeast, mostly because I traversed it almost annually during my childhood, but also because the West and New England are quite stingy when it comes to maps. I must’ve discarded California’s map; it was just a page in a travel guidebook. And the only “welcome center” I could find in Rhode Island was a Mobil station selling Mobil maps.
Perhaps a more interesting project would be to spread out all these maps and stitch together a mosaic of the U.S. It’ll have to wait until I can find enough floor space to unfurl Texas.
Today is my last day at Apple. (It’s a fruit company – heard of it?) That mostly means no more product giveaways to this blog’s most insightful commenters. In a little over three years, no one ever qualified, sorry. It also means the Xcode team has one fewer engineer to help sort through fan mail. Apparently they’re called “bug reports” outside Cupertino, which explains the… expressivity I’d see sometimes. I have a lot to get used to.
As for where I’m going, that’ll be the topic of a later note, following the same protocol whereby your bank sends you your PIN in one envelope followed by an explanation of that PIN in another envelope after you’ve misplaced the first. All I can say is it has little to do with the startup idea I had back in 2009.
Among my many roles in the Wikipedia project, I play the part of historian. Not the kind who obsesses over Civil War battles and World War I artillery, building up infoboxes the size of the USS Enterprise. That’s History, uppercase. No, I add historical content to non-history articles – lowercase history. Most articles need lowercase history to provide essential context and flavor. It’s not enough to know how things are; we need to know how things got that way and how we found out about it.
Once in a while, there’s even a chance to advance scholarship on a topic. Scouring Google Books led me to long forgotten accounts of an earlier Ohio flag. (It’s actually pretty boring, just a white rectangle with some details on it. I’m glad it never took off.) My sudden activity on that article attracted the attention of another editor, who gradually ate away at a factoid all my social studies teachers in school had repeated as fact: that Nepal and Ohio were the only country and state, respectively, with non-rectangular flags. In fact, there are plenty of counterexamples, from European naval ensigns to the Qing dynasty’s triangular Yellow Dragon Flag.
In another case from earlier this year, I finally quashed the silly misconception that phở is based on a French soup and even named after it. Apparently no one in the English-speaking world, not even the OED, had bothered to check with scholars fluent in Vietnamese to see whether the historical literature backed up that myth. (For the record, Cantonese speakers had much to do with the name, while the dish evolved from a Vietnamese water buffalo soup called xáo trâu. Eww?)
It’s more difficult for a Wikipedia editor to write about lowercase history than to write about the present, because Wikipedia has a stringent policy requiring “verifiable” sources. It’s easy to find websites, books, and reviews raving about phở and easy for another editor to double-check that source. But as soon as you start writing about lowercase history, you run up against all sorts of barriers: paywalls for year-old news articles, paywalls for decade-old news articles, ditto for century-old news articles that should’ve been out of copyright for generations.
Thankfully, Google (Books, Scholar, News Archive Search), HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, and various national library websites do provide access to a huge number of sources for free, if you happen to be looking for something in the right time period. If you’re looking into local or regional history, subscription databases offer even more. Depending on the state of their budget, your local library may provide access one or two good subscription databases. If not, there’s The Wikipedia Library, but you have to apply for access.
Still, searching this wealth of sources can be difficult because OCR is nowhere near as good as you’d expect in 2014, and it’s virtually absent from older or foreign-language documents. So sometimes the best sources can only be found with some guesswork: what kind of publication would cover the topic and in what years? What appears to be an original source might turn out to be regurgitated from a decade earlier, in which case the investigation starts anew.
There’s also the problem of bias in historical sources. I came across a great deal of vitriol directed at the flags of Ohio and Cincinnati when they were introduced and came away thinking that they were poorly received at first. In fact, it wasn’t so lopsided, but of the subscription databases I had access to, the only one covering that time period was for a highly partisan Democratic newspaper. Both flags were introduced by Republicans. (These days, that paper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, has about as much edge as that former Ohio flag.) For the phở article, too, I had to remain mindful that some French- and Vietnamese-language sources were more interested in claiming the soup for their country than establishing the truth.
Lowercase history is the most inefficient, time-consuming way to expand an article but the most effective way to increase its quality. Very often, it forces you to square competing narratives and question the assumptions that underlie the contemporary description of a topic. It also builds the reader’s trust by increasing the number and variety of sources beyond the low-hanging fruit that anyone could find via Google search.
These days, at the English Wikipedia particularly, it’s easy to feel that all the good topics have been written about. But the truth is that most of those articles still have plenty of room to grow. If you toss out labels like amateur historian, I think you’d find that writing a coherent encyclopedia depends in large part on how many fields of study you can lowercase.