The Mysteries of the First-Ever Map of the North Pole

The second draft of the Septentrionalium Terrarum, released in 1606.

The second draft of the Septentrionalium Terrarum, released in 1606. GERARDUS MERCATOR/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Gerard Mercator’s 16th-century attempt at mapping the Arctic includes such guesses as a giant whirlpool and polar pygmies.

These days, climate scientists are looking hard at Arctic maps. As winter sea ice shrinks and cracks appear, they try to understand the reasons for these changes, and determine what we should expect in the future. Centuries ago, though, when people tried to map the Arctic, they weren’t too concerned with what was happening to it—they just wanted to know what the heck was up there. And, if they didn’t know, they pretty much made it up. Such was the case with the first known map of the Arctic: the Septentrionalium Terrarum, which is filled with magnetic stones, strange whirlpools, and other colorful guesses.

The map’s creator, the Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator, is best known for the “Mercator projection,” the now-famed method of taking the curved lines of the Earth and transforming them into straight ones that can be used on a flat map. The Mercator projection was invented for sailors, who, thanks to its design, could use it to plot a straight-line course from their point of origin to their destination. In 1569, Mercator came out with a map of the world based on this principal, which stretched from East to West and promised, in his words, “no trace… of any of those errors which must necessarily be encountered on the ordinary charts of shipmasters.”

In order to make his map useful for navigation, though, Mercator had to sacrifice accuracy in other areas—specifically, he had to stretch out the top and bottom parts of his map, making the lands and seas in the far North and South appear disproportionately larger than those nearer the equator. (This is also why so many people think Africa is the same size as Greenland, when it is really about 14 times bigger—the Mercator projection is still very common in schools.)

Mercator's 1569 map of the world, the first to feature his famous projection. The Arctic inlet is on the bottom left.
Mercator’s 1569 map of the world, the first to feature his famous projection. The Arctic inlet is on the bottom left. GERARDUS MERCATOR/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Under the terms of this Mercator math, the North Pole would appear so large as to be almost infinite. So instead of including it in the overall projection, Mercator decided to set a small, top-down view of the Arctic in the bottom left corner of his world map. Geographical historians consider this to be the first true map of the Arctic. Over the subsequent decades, as new information came to light, Mercator and his protégés enlarged and updated this original map—the draft above is an attempt from 1606, updated by his successor, Jodocus Hondius—but those original bones remained in place.

By the 1500s, not very many people had ventured up to the Arctic—no explorer would set foot on the Pole itself until 1909. This didn’t stop Mercator, who dug into some dicey sources to suss out what he should include. The most influential, called Inventio Fortunata (translation: “Fortunate Discoveries”) was a 14th-century travelogue written by an unknown source; in Mercator’s words, it traced the travels of “an English minor friar of Oxford” who traveled to Norway and then “pushed on further by magical arts.” This mysterious book gave Mercator the centerpiece of his map: a massive rock located exactly at the pole, which he labels Rupus Nigra et Altissima, or “Black, Very High Cliff.”…



Undersea: Rachel Carson’s Lyrical and Revolutionary 1937 Masterpiece Inviting Humans to Explore Earth from the Perspective of Other Creatures

Art by Rambharos Jha from Waterlife

“Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”

Pioneering biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with the groundbreaking publication of Silent Spring in 1962, but the spark for this slow-burning revolution was kindled a quarter century earlier, while 28-year-old Carson was working for what would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When she was tasked with writing a brochure for the Fisheries Bureau, summarizing their annual research findings, Carson transmuted the science into poetry and turned in something so exquisitely lyrical that her supervisor told her they simply couldn’t publish it as their standard government report. But he encouraged her to submit it to The Atlantic Monthly as an essay. She did. It was enthusiastically accepted and published in the September 1937 issue as the trailblazing masterpiece “Undersea” under the byline R.L. Carson — a choice reflective of Carson’s era-calibrated fear that her writing wouldn’t be taken as seriously if her gender was known. Ironically, of the twenty-one contributors in that issue of the magazine, Carson’s name is the only one widely recognized today.

The essay became the backbone of Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind, which remained her favorite piece of writing, and was later included in the excellent Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (public library).

Rachel Carson

Creatively, “Undersea” was unlike anything ever published before — Carson brought a strong literary aesthetic to science, which over the next two decades would establish her as the most celebrated science writer of her time. Conceptually, it accomplished something even Darwin hadn’t — it invited the reader to step beyond our reflexive human hubris and empathically explore this Pale Blue Dot from the vantage point of the innumerable other creatures with which we share it. Decades before philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote his iconic essay “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” and nearly a century before Sy Montgomery’s beautiful inquiry into the soul of an octopus, Carson considered the experience of other consciousnesses. What the nature writer Henry Beston, one of Carson’s great heroes, brought to the land, she brought first to the sea, then to all of Earth — intensely lyrical prose undergirded by a lively reverence for nature and a sympathetic curiosity about the reality of other living beings.

Long before scientists like pioneering oceanographer Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earleplunged into the depths of the ocean, Carson shepherds the human imagination to the mysterious wonderland thriving below the surface of the seas that envelop Earth:

Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere. Nor can we know the vicissitudes of life on the ocean floor, where sunlight, filtering through a hundred feet of water, makes but a fleeting, bluish twilight, in which dwell sponge and mollusk and starfish and coral, where swarms of diminutive fish twinkle through the dusk like a silver rain of meteors, and eels lie in wait among the rocks. Even less is it given to man to descend those six incomprehensible miles into the recesses of the abyss, where reign utter silence and unvarying cold and eternal night.

To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water.

North Pacific Giant Octopus by photographer Mark Laita from his project Sea

After a tour of some of the ocean’s most unusual and dazzling creatures, Carson considers the glorious and inevitable interconnectedness of the natural world, no different from the “inescapable network of mutuality” which Martin Luther King so passionately championed in the human world. She writes:

The ocean is a place of paradoxes. It is the home of the great white shark, two thousand pound killer of the seas. And of the hundred foot blue whale, the largest animal that ever lived. It is also the home of living things so small that your two hands may scoop up as many of them as there are stars in the Milky Way. And it is becoming of the flowering of astronomical numbers of these diminutive plants known as diatoms, that the surface waters of the ocean are in reality boundless pastures.

Every marine animal, from the smallest to the sharks and whales is ultimately dependent for its food upon these microscopic entities of the vegetable life of the ocean. Within their fragile walls, the sea performs a vital alchemy that utilizes the sterile chemical elements dissolved in the water and welds them with the torch of sunlight into the stuff of life. Only through the little-understood synthesis of proteins, fats and carbohydrates by myriad plant “producers” is the mineral wealth of the sea made available to the animal “consumers” that browse as they float with the currents. Drifting endlessly, midway between the sea of air above and the depths of the abyss below, these strange creatures and the marine inflorescence that sustains them are called “plankton” — the wanderers…



How Long Should You Wait to Buy Something You Really Want?

by Tracy Moore

Finding spontaneous joy on a carefully planned budget

Most all financial advice in the known universe centers around two common pitfalls: You don’t budget your money well, and you buy too much shit you don’t need. We’re all familiar with impulse buying — thoughtless, unconsidered spending on stuff you could just as easily go without that adds up over time and derails the best-laid plans for saving money. A recent essay on Thought Catalog offers one way to curb impulse buying: Wait three days before buying any non-necessity, and then, and only then, allow yourself to buy if you really want it.

In the essay, “I Was Broke All The Time And Deep In Debt Until I Started Following The ‘Three Day’ Rule,” Jamie Rappaport writes that after staring down a maxed out delinquent credit card and asking her mom for money to fix her car (again), that she realized she had to stop buying so many $5 coffees and $8 sandwiches.

Her mom told her that to stop spending so much, she should always wait a day before buying anything. If she still wanted something a day later, she could go back and buy it then. So after her next paycheck, Rappaport gave herself a mere $20 for impulse purchases to last the entire pay period. She drove right past McDonald’s and fought the temptation to pull in. Rappaport writes:

Two Fridays later, I got paid. I didn’t even know my direct deposit hit because I still had some cash left over. I checked my bank account and I still had $200 in my checking account. $200! That’s when I knew I could do it….and that’s when it became a game seeing how fast I could save my money.

I gave myself a couple of rules to follow. I told myself I wouldn’t buy it if I could only use it one time (coffee, fast food, shots at the bar) but if I really wanted it three days later, then I could go back and buy it.

Adding two days to her mother’s initial advice, Rappaport devised the “Three Day Rule” for dodging her usual purchases. She bought groceries rather than fast food, since she could make multiple meals out of them. She bought toilet paper in bulk; she bought coffee to make at home. She found that she saved both money and time — and she even lost weight in the process.

“I am not a good enough writer to explain how good it feels to not be harassed by debt collectors at all hours of the waking day or how relieving it is to actually have money in case of emergency,” Rappaport writes. “A lot of my stress for the past few years could have been prevented if I started saving my money sooner.”

The art of dodging the impulse buy is never as easy as it sounds. Most of the existing advice out there argues for few common approaches that vary only by degree. First, you have to differentiate between a want and a need, which is easy enough to do — intellectually, at least. Second, you have to avoid going to the sorts of places you’re most likely to spend recklessly — the mall, the bar, the grocery store when you’re hungry — which are usually designed preciselywith impulse buying in mind. Third, you have to put some kind of stopgap in place to make yourself think the choice over — a self-imposed time restraint that prevents you from leaping before you’ve even looked.

Some experts say to wait a week before you swipe your card for that new stainless steel refrigerator. Others suggest a 30-day wait for everything you feel compelled to get your grubby little hands on. If, after 30 days, the urge to own, say, a virtual reality headset passes, you just cross it off the list. If it’s still calling your name, consider your budget and whether you can actually afford it. Others suggest a $100-a-day rule, which dictates that you wait one day for every $100 you want to spend on something — a $400 gadget means a four-day waiting period, for instance. Others offer a more low-key take: Just sleep on it. And people argue all this delayed gratification works.

While it’s hard to argue against such reasonable advice — you don’t need easily 80 percent of what you buy, I bet — it’s important to note the fatal flaw of these waiting systems for purchases. Even the most stringent financial planning has to account for the realities of navigating life on earth: If you take away every good, frivolous and fun thing you’ve got while trying to pay off debt or get your financial life in order, it will be near impossible to remain sane or succeed. Even financial guru Dave Ramsey advocates for “fun money” — budgeted pocket money you can spend entirely on gummy bears if the urge strikes.

One fundamental truth in life is that humans need a little walking-around money and the occasional $16 burger to feel like life is worth living. Are those impulse buys, or are they simply a demonstration of your ability to live in the moment, within reason? I guess that depends how much you make — and how often you crave a $16 burger…



In praise of cash

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image edited by Web Investigator

Cash might be grungy, unfashionable and corruptible, but it is still a great public good, important for rich and poor alike

Brett Scott writes about financial activism and social and environmental finance. He is the author of The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance (2013).

I recently found myself facing a vending machine in a quiet corridor at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. I was due to speak at a conference called ‘Reinvent Money’ but, suffering from jetlag and exhaustion, I was on a search for Coca-Cola. The vending machine had a small digital interface built by a Dutch company called Payter. Printed on it was a sentence: ‘Contactless payment only.’ I touched down my bank card, but rather than dispensing Coke, it beeped a message: ‘Card invalid.’ Not all cards are created equal, even if you can get one – and not everyone can.

In the economist’s imagining of an idealised free market, rational individuals enter into monetary-exchange contracts with each other for their mutual benefit. One party – called the ‘buyer’ – passes money tokens to another party – called the ‘seller’ – who in turn gives real goods or services. So here I am, the tired individual rationally seeking sugar. The market is before me, fizzy drinks stacked on a shelf, presided over by a vending machine acting on behalf of the cola seller. It’s an obedient mechanical apparatus that is supposed to abide by a simple market contract: If you give money to my owner, I will give you a Coke. So why won’t this goddamn machine enter into this contract with me? This is market failure.

To understand this failure, we must first understand that we live with two modes of money. ‘Cash’ is the name given to our system of physical tokens that are manually passed on to complete transactions. This first mode of money is public. We might call it ‘state money’. Indeed, we experience cash like a public utility that is ‘just there’. Like other public utilities, it might feel grungy and unsexy – with inefficiencies and avenues for corruption – but it is in principle open-access. It can be passed directly by the richest of society to the poorest of society, or vice versa.

Alongside this, we have a separate system of digital fiat money, in which our money tokens take the form of ‘data objects’ recorded on a database by an authority – a bank – granted power to ‘keep score’ of them for us. We refer to this as our bank account and, rather than physically transporting this money, we ‘move’ it by sending messages to our banks – for example, via mobile phones or the internet – asking them to edit the data. Money ‘moves’ to your landlord if your two respective banks can agree to edit your accounts, reducing your score and increasing your landlord’s score.

This second mode of money is essentially private, running off an infrastructure collectively controlled by profit-seeking commercial banks and a host of private payment intermediaries – like Visa and Mastercard – that work with them. The data inscriptions in your bank account are not state money. Rather, your bank account records private promises issued to you by your bank, promising you access to state money should you wish. Having ‘£500’ in your Barclays account actually means ‘Barclays PLC promises you access to £500’. The ATM network is the main way by which you convert these private bank promises – ‘deposits’ – into the state cash that has been promised to you. The digital payments system, on the other hand, is a way to transfer – or reassign – those bank promises between ourselves.

This dual system allows us the option to use private digital bank money when buying pizza at a restaurant, but we can always resort to public state money drawn out of an ATM if the proprietor’s debit card system crashes. This choice seems fair. At different times, we might find either form more or less useful. As you read this, though, architects of a ‘cashless society’ are working to remove the option of resorting to state cash. They wish to completely privatise the movement of money tokens, pushing banks and private-payments intermediaries between all interactions of buyers and sellers.

The cashless society – which more accurately should be called the bank-payments society – is often presented as an inevitability, an outcome of ‘natural progress’. This claim is either naïve or disingenuous. Any future cashless bank-payments society will be the outcome of a deliberate war on cash waged by an alliance of three elite groups with deep interests in seeing it emerge.

The first is the banking industry, which controls the core digital fiat money system that our public system of cash currently competes with. It irritates banks that people do indeed act upon their right to convert their bank deposits into state money. It forces them to keep the ATM network running. The cashless society, in their eyes, is a utopia where money cannot leave – or even exist – outside the banking system, but can only be transferred from bank to bank.

The second is the private payments industry – the likes of Mastercard – that profits from running the infrastructure that services that bank system, streamlining the process via which we transfer digital money between bank accounts. They have self-serving reasons to push for the removal of the cash option. Cash transactions are peer-to-peer, requiring no intermediary, and are thus transactions that Visa cannot skim a cut off.

The third – perhaps ironically – is the state, and quasi-state entities such as central banks. They are united with the financial industry in forcing everyone to buy into this privatised bank-payments society for reasons of monitoring and control. The bank-money system forms a panopticon that enables – in theory – all transactions to be recorded, watched and analysed, good or bad. Furthermore, cash’s ‘offline’ nature means it cannot be remotely altered or frozen. This hampers central banks in implementing ‘innovative’ monetary policies, such as setting negative interest rates that slowly edit away bank deposits in order to coerce people into spending…