Google introduces historical Street View


It has been a while since I’ve posted, and that is mostly due to my new job! I’m doing research for a transportation modeling team, and my job mostly consists of keeping our network models up to date using GIS and other programs.

Anyway, enough about me. Today Google released an improvement for their maps functionality that makes one aspect of my job so much easier. I’ve been working on a 2010 network model (note that it is now 2014), which means I have to pull roadway information (number of lanes, length, speed limit, etc) from 2010 in order to have an accurate model. Since roadways often change, especially in the downtown area, this is not always an easy task. Until now, I’ve been using Google Earth, which has the ability to view historical satellite imagery. So, until today, I’ve been verifying lane counts from a bird’s-eye perspective. This is not always easy when there’s shadows from tall buildings or trees in the way.

But luckily, now I can use Street View from roughly any time since 2007. That means I can go back to 2010 and view what the roads actually looked like from a human’s-eye perspective (or car’s-eye perspective). This makes things way easier! And better yet, it’s built into Google Maps so I can do it right from my browser.

According to the Google Earth blog,

Activating it is quite simple. While viewing imagery in Street View, simply click the clock in the upper-left part of the screen (as shown in the image above) to choose a different time. Note that this feature is rolling out in stages, and you may not yet have access to it.

Easy peasy. I’m going to be using this a lot from now on. Thanks Google!


Building skyscrapers out of wood


Here’s an interesting idea. Vancouver-based architect Michael Green proposes building 30-story tall skyscrapers out of wood, and it sounds like it just may work. Buildings made of wood are imagined to be fairly fragile, but with modern technology, wooden buildings may be a lot safer than you might think. From theatlanticcities:

Rather than building with two-by-fours, modern-day wood construction would be accomplished using state-of-the-art methods based on super-compressed mass timber panels – essentially giant, sturdy Lego-like assembly. The compression also contributes to protecting against fire, which Green concedes is the first question he gets when he talks about building with wood. These denser wood building blocks are actually difficult to burn – like a big fat tree stump in a fireplace – and would of course exist within the context of 21st-century fire suppression systems, including sprinklers.

Apparently, there are many advantages to building a skyscraper from wood. Regular skyscrapers account for 50% of greenhouse gases. Wood is free, grows naturally, and there’s a lot of wood we can harvest without chopping anything down – there are tons of dead trees lying around just ready to be turned into skyscrapers.

Sweden has approved a 30-story wooden skyscraper, and Vancouver is reviewing the paperwork for Michael Green’s building. Michael Green has a TED talk on the subject, and his website is all about wooden buildings.

All info via theatlanticcities.

Double-sided flags of the world

San Juan, Argentina (front)

San Juan, Argentina (back)

Here’s something interesting I discovered recently: there are some flags of the world that have two different sides! I just assumed that all flags were identical on both sides, but apparently that’s not the case. There aren’t many, but wikipedia’s helpful entry shows them all. The first is San Juan, a province of Argentina. The front side of the flag depicts the province’s coat of arms, while the reverse simply shows a sun.

Soviet Union (front)

Soviet Union (back)

The Soviet Union’s flag was one of the most interesting to me. Most double-sided flags belonged to smaller states, provinces, and countries. The Soviet Union, however, was a large and influential nation – and its flag had two sides!

Oregon (front)

Oregon (back)

Three American states have had double-sided flags at one point or another – Alabama in 1861, Massachusetts from 1908-1971 – but Oregon is the only state that still has a flag with two sides. Most double-sided flags differ little between the two sides, but the reverse of Oregon’s flag is almost completely different from the front.

For the whole list of double-sided flags, check out this Wikipedia article.

The world in 430 BC according to Herodotus

This map was not actually created by Herodotus himself – it was put together from the description of the world given in his historical masterpiece The HistoriesThe area encompasses the Mediterranean Sea, west to present-day Spain, north to the southern half of Europe, east to India, and south to the Sahara Desert. The map, as well as Herodotus’s book, have several glaring inaccuracies, including the Nile jutting west almost all the way across the Sahara Desert, Africa terminating just south of that same desert, and how he seems to refer to all people with dark skin as “Ethiopians.”

I love seeing how people thought of the world at different periods of time. 430BC is just about the time that humans really started to inquire philosophically and record their thoughts, and it’s interesting that the entire world to even the most scholarly intellectual at the time is only now just a small fraction of our world. People of the time would likely have been amazed had they known that there were several continents in every direction, that the planet had polar ice caps, and that the earth was roughly a sphere. Or how about that there are planets other than our own? Or the vastness of our universe?

On that point, will our maps be quite as unsophisticated to humans 2,500 years from now (assuming there are any)? Will our picture of the universe pale in comparison to theirs? I certainly think so – I imagine that our current “map” of the universe is far, far more incomplete than Herodotus’s map of the world in 430 BC.

Image via Age of the Sage.

Los Angeles Railway is officially coming back

Yesterday, the Los Angeles City Council approved $352 million dedicated to rebuilding and maintaining LA’s streetcar system that existed between 1901 and 1963. The trolley line will be nowhere near as expansive as it was in its heyday, but it’s at least a start to a much-needed rail system in one of the largest cities in the country. The next step is to secure $75 million from the federal government, and then the city will begin to lay the tracks.

The trolley system was orchestrated by real estate tycoon Henry E. Huntington in 1901, and at its height there were more than 20 rail lines and 1,250 streetcars. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Railway was a victim of the General Motors streetcar conspiracy in 1945, where General Motors and other companies bought up railway systems across the country with the purpose of removing them entirely. Rather than disappearing completely, many of the streetcar lines were replaced with buses. By 1963, all trolley bus lines and streetcars were replaced with diesel buses.

But the streetcars are coming back! After years of supporters fighting to have the streetcars reinstated, they have finally gotten their wish. The proposal is only for a single line that will run through 3 of downtown LA’s largest routes – Broadway, Hill, and Figueroa streets – but there is room for expansion. The city is even considering using wireless electric trolleys, similar to those in Bordeaux, France.

The line will open in 2016 and I’m really excited for LA! They probably have the largest traffic problem in the United States and this will definitely provide some relief for commuters. Even if it’s only one line, I’m sure more will be added once the city sees how successful the project is.

All info and images via Wikipedia and LA Times.

Apple City and other company towns

Apple City was an idea for a walkable urban center in the heart of Cupertino, CA – the city that houses Apple’s headquarters. It was designed after Steve Jobs proposed his own Apple City in 2011, but Jobs’ idea centered around a huge building designed to house 12,000 employees. Critics compared it to the Pentagon, and many people decried it as furthering the suburban sprawl problem.

So in response to Jobs’ idea, architect Hillel Schocken proposed to Jobs himself via email the idea of an urban center that focused on the individual. He wrote:

It is odd because even in the USA people are beginning to realize the ills of suburbia and urban sprawl, both concepts belonging to the middle of the last Century. A project the size of yours could mark the beginning of a new era in American urbanism, an era that puts human beings before the car, pedestrians before drivers. It could invest in creating a lively public realm, in the shape of streets rather than roads, where the people of Cupertino, including Apple employees, could meet, connect, do business and interact for their mutual benefit. Instead, your project replaces parking lot placelessness with ‘green’ placelessness.

I personally think this idea is leaps and bounds above Jobs’ idea for Apple City, seen here. His Apple City just seems so disconnected, and I just wouldn’t like to work in an eerie, spaceship-like structure like that. Jobs never replied to Schocken’s email, and he died just a few months later.

Even though Jobs never approved it, Schocken and his students decided to design Apple City anyway. His city was dense with stores, museums, and libraries, and it boasted the ability to easily travel through the city by foot.

The idea of a company town got me thinking, and I was reminded of Hershey, Pennsylvania. The city was built in the early 20th century in order to integrate community and employment, as the Hershey factory, completed in 1905, was located in the area. The town is similar to Schocken’s proposed Apple City – Hershey had an amusement park, trolleys and trains, a community center, a large hotel, and a stadium all before 1910. Even though the town essentially exists now for tourism purposes, the idea when it was built was that employees would not have to break their backs to make it to work every day, a stunning insight for the era, as sprawl and suburbs were on the rise at the time.

Orlando, Florida is in a similar position as Hershey. Orlando’s economy is boosted by the fact that it is essentially Disney’s company town, with DisneyWorld being just a few miles away. However, Orlando is a bit different than Apple City or Hershey. Orlando was an established town long before Disney came around, whereas Hershey was built specifically to house employees of the Hershey company, as Apple City would do similarly.

It is undeniable that Disney makes up a huge part of the Orlando area. This blogger points out that you can hardly go anywhere without feeling Disney’s presence. He makes another interesting point – if Disney were to fail, what would happen to Orlando?

We’ve seen what has happened to industry-reliant cities like Detroit when their industries fail. It’s not difficult to imagine what would happen if the Hershey company went under – the city of Hershey, PA would likely experience some harsh times, as nearly all of their tourism relies on the company. It’s not so much about housing employees anymore, but more about keeping the city afloat. The company does not rely on the city as was probably the intent in Hershey in 1905, but rather the city relies on the company. If something drastic were to happen to the Disney company, it is sure that Orlando would face serious hardship, even though the city came well before Disney did.

And Apple? Luckily there is not a lack of tech companies in the area, so if something happened to Apple and they went bankrupt, surely somebody else would pick up the tab. In fact, Jobs bought the site of his enormous Apple building from Hewlett-Packard. Regardless, a building of that size would have to be insured by some staying power – it would be a shame to see that building abandoned when it is likely so finely-tuned to Apple’s specifications.

All info and images via Co.EXIST, brandchannel, and Wikipedia. 

The nonexistent island


Sandy Island was an island off the northeast coast of Australia that is believed to have disappeared entirely after having been discovered in the late 18th century and documented up until the 20th century. James Cook was the first to document its existence in 1774, and French maps corroborated the island in maps during the 19th century. However, recent expeditions have discovered that Sandy Island simply does not exist, and it wasn’t until November 2012 that the National Geographic Society officially removed Sandy Island from all maps. Even Google Maps, which is supposed to get its data from satellite imagery, featured Sandy Island until that date.

So what happened? The island appears to be relatively large, so it’s hard to imagine that it just disappeared over the last few hundred years. However, the idea is not too farfetched – the island could have simply been a low island of sand and nothing else, as its name evoques. The island’s supposed location, seen below, indeed raises the possibility that the island was at one time simply a raised bed of sand which eroded away over the centuries.


Sandy Island’s supposed location was in the heart of the Coral Sea, where there is an underwater range of mountains and coral reefs, so it is entirely plausible that a larger mountain breached the water’s surface for a period of time and was later washed away. However, when researching this topic I came upon a long list of once-documented islands that were found to be nonexistent, and not all of them can be attributed to erosion.

A glaring example of a wrongly-documented island is the island of Frisland, supposedly south of Iceland and west of Ireland. It is not entirely ridiculous for explorers to have thought and island existed in the area, as there is a bit of raised seabed in the area that could have served as an island at one point. But, something catastrophic would have had to have happened in order to sink an island of that size, so I’m going to go ahead and say that this island never existed. Frisland was mostly only featured on maps for about 100 years – from about 1560 to 1660 – but a few maps kept it on as late as the 18th century. Early maps, like the one below, gave it place names, and it was even given currency by the Maggiolo family of Genoa.

It’s possible that Frisland was actually the southern part of Greenland and that explorers mistakenly presumed it to be its own island, but there is no definite consensus on the topic. However, it seems that there have been many instances of nonexistent islands – accidental or otherwise – and thanks to satellite imagery, this sort of problem probably won’t be happening again anytime soon.

All info and images via Wikipedia, digitaltrends, and the Auckland Museum blog.

Wind Map shows the power of the wind as it’s happening

Unfortunately, I found this website just a day too late. As some may know, there was some really intense wind in Texas yesterday. It looks like that wind is now moving steadily towards the northeast. Anyway, the site shows the power of the wind almost as quickly as it’s happening, and that is just too cool. It even has a gallery so you can look at the power of the wind during various important events, like Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Isaac, and others. Since lots of you are still experiencing some intense wind, check it out! The snapshot above is how the wind is today, on February 26th. From the site:

Surface wind data comes from the National Digital Forecast Database. These are near-term forecasts, revised once per hour. So what you’re seeing is a living portrait. (See the NDFD site for precise details; our timestamp shows time of download.) And for those of you chasing top wind speed, note that maximum speed may occur over lakes or just offshore.

Check it out: Wind Map

Ancient continent, dubbed Mauritia, discovered under Indian Ocean

60 million years ago, there existed a microcontinent between Madagascar and India that was buried by lava due to continental drift and magma plumes. Scientists are learning that hot magma has more of a role in the break-up of continents than previously understood. About 170 million years ago, the continent known as “Eastern Gondwana” was bombarded on the underside by hot rock which caused it to soften and break up into Antarctica, Australia, India, Madagascar, and India. Mauritia was likely part of that break-up, and it broke up further and was eventually buried by the molten rock that pushed India into Asia.

Scientists have verified that Mauritia was indeed a continent due to the zircons found on the beaches of the various islands of the Seychelles, where Mauritia is though to be buried beneath. Zircons are tiny rock fragments that are extremely resistant to erosion, and thus they can remain relatively unchanged for millions of years. Most rocks on the beaches of the Seychelles islands are no older than 9 million years old, but the zircons found on the beach tested to be much older, revealing that the land was above water millions of years prior. From sci-news:

The sand grains contain semi-precious zircons aged between 660 and 1,970 million years. This is explained by the fact that the zircons were carried by the lava as it pushed through subjacent continental crust of this age. This dating method was supplemented by a recalculation of plate tectonics, which explains exactly how and where the fragments ended up in the Indian Ocean.

Despite the fact that this is not an incredibly rare occurrence, I think it’s incredibly interesting that scientists are able to uncover a mystery about our geography by testing beach sand. The ancient geographical layout of our planet is a topic that has been extensively researched, so much that we are able to paint a picture of our planet’s continents even 500 million years ago. It’s crazy to me that we are still discovering that there were once other continents – albeit small – but ones that we would not have been able to discover by the traditional method of observing modern continents and noticing how they drifted to find their placement millions of years ago. There were many continents that existed for eons and that were buried by the ocean to never be heard of again. I hope that we find more and more instances of continents that were covered with water, especially if we find some rather large ones!

Image and info via Sci-news

Abu Dhabi’s website has a great street designer, too

Last week I wrote a post about StreetMix, an interactive website that lets you design street layouts. Today I discovered that the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council’s website has a similar interactive street designer, with a plethora of different options to change widths, heights, and even speeds of vehicles. It even has the ability to animate the street from a bird’s eye view so that you can really get a good picture of how it would work.

The designer has a ton of options to start with. The image at the top of this page is an example of the simplest street, the Town Access Lane. But it can get much more complicated. The image below is one of the most complicated streets you can make, the “City  Boulevard”:


The interface of the website takes some getting used to, but once you figure out how to edit each lane, you can change nearly everything about the street. This includes creating a bike lane that is elevated 10 feet above the others, and bringing a sidewalk 10 feet into the ground. There are no limits, as you can type in any value you want,  so you can really make some pretty wacky creations.

You can even save your street and open it up again later. Abu Dhabi and the UAE in general are well known for their innovative city planning and high-rise development. It’s not at all surprising that they have a great interactive street designer, too. Check it out here.