Eat, Sleep, Blow Your Mind: ADE Ghana

The air on the tarmac was intensely hot and humid, made heavier by the sinking sun, but after three weeks I was used to the climate, barely sweating in long pants and a t-shirt. We loaded ourselves into the last shuttle, and as it rumbled slowly towards the airplane, I closed my eyes, savoring the last moments of my first experience of Ghana.

 

I’d never felt like such a foreigner in my life. Our team of eight from Olin and Babson consisted of the only light-skinned people around. For the first time ever I was the extreme racial minority, a humbling, indispensable experience for those who are used to being the majority. Everyone who saw us, on the street, in our hotel, at markets, at work, would stare, smile, and shout in a friendly tone, “Obroni!” the Akan word for foreigner. Ghanaians are extremely friendly and welcoming to foreigners. Many times a day I was asked my name, shaken hands with (bonus surprised smile if you knew the Ghanaian handshake), and jokingly teased by total strangers.

 

We weren’t exactly the only light-skinned people around. Billboards and storefront advertisements were full of white and light-skinned black people. Mannequins showing off Ghanaian clothing and busts wearing straight black wigs looked anything but African. Ben Linder, our trip leader, told me about the skin whitening creams sold at many Ghanaian drug stores. I can’t make any judgments or conclusions here based on these few observations, but I am compelled by them to do some serious thinking and research.

 

But what was I doing in Ghana, anyway? My team and I were working in Kumasi, Ghana, for QueenTech, a social venture that began in (and is still part of) Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship (ADE), a senior capstone and design depth course at Olin. QueenTech collaboratively designs and builds small, low-tech cassava processing machines for women entrepreneurs in Ghana (maybe other places in the future too!). I’ll tell you more about our work shortly, but it will really help to have a few contextual tidbits for you to chew on. Ghana is such a different place and culture than ours that to try and convey even my shallow and incomplete notion of the place in anything more than a list would require a novel, but even incomplete, bulleted context is better than none, so here you go.

 

Money: Ostensibly, $1 ≈ 4GHS (Ghanaian Cedi). However, costs can differ by orders of magnitude depending on where (and who) you are. You can buy the same meal for 40GHS ($10) at a restaurant in the Accra airport or 1GHS (25¢) at a chop bar (“chop” means “to eat” in pidgin English) in a village. As an obroni, you have to be wary of being charged an “obroni price,” a very real and arguably fair (because we are rich) phenomenon.

 

Aesthetics: Everything looks unique, hand-made, and full of vibrant colors and patterns. This was pretty refreshing and eye-opening coming from a place obsessed with matchy-matchy everything. If I thought the Olin campus looked sterile before…

 

Food: It appears to my naive self that the most common hot meals in Ghana consist of a large amount of starch and a small a portion of meat served with a sauce or soup. You eat with your hands, using pieces of the starchy food as a sort of utensil for the sauce. The starch is a form of either plantain, yam, rice, or cassava (a large, white, starchy tuber known as yucca in South America). The meat is either chicken (often slaughtered locally that very day–there are chickens everywhere), fish (bought covered in flies at the market), or goat (also everywhere, and only used for meat–the idea of drinking goats milk to Ghanaians is like drinking pigs milk to us). Hardboiled eggs, the vegetarian substitute for the piece of meat, are boiled for about thirty minutes and have a pale grey yolk. If you are a strict vegetarian, tough luck, as most of the soups and sauces come with small pieces of fish flaked into them no matter what you say or ask for. If you want a snack, there’s fresh fruit, plantain chips, and twenty different kinds of savory and sweet fried dough carried around on top of women’s heads everywhere you look.

 

Religion: I know little of the intricacies of religion in Ghana, but it is of so much importance to Ghanaian culture that it deserves some mentioning. Most Ghanaians are Christian. Many shop names consist of Christian sayings and blessings such as “God’s Glory Bakery” or “Jesus Saves Chainsaws,” and I’ve seen paintings of a bloody Christ overlaid with local food advertisements. Taxis and tro tros (minibuses) often have a blessing painted across the rear windshield. However, a few Ghanaians still practice their ancient traditional religion, Akom. Christianity and Akom practices are sometimes synthesized and coexist in interesting ways. For example, village chiefs, who are their community’s leader, represent the traditional Akom religion, although the community members are usually all Christian.

 

Funerals: Funerals are a big deal in Ghana. Invitations to large funerals are actually advertised on billboards with the age of the person, a portrait, a date, and a Christian blessing. Funerals are often very big, and people wear black and red. Sometimes, for reasons I don’t know, the hosts will hire professional mourners to attend. I remember seeing several funeral processions in Ghana where an ambulance, siren blaring, was used as the hearse.

 

Toilets: I used six different kinds of toilets in Ghana! There were US-style toilets, bidets, nice ceramic squatting toilets, squatting pit-toilets, elevated squatting pit-toilets, rooms with a hole in the wall, rooms with a hole in the floor, rooms with a channel along the wall and then a hole in the corner. My personal favorite is the nice ceramic squatting toilets, as squatting is much better for your health, and you don’t touch anything with your naked bum. I really wish we had those in the U.S.

 

Cars: Drivers in Ghana are pros, by a certain definition of pro. When you’re in a taxi or a tro tro, you see a hundred near-accidents around you per minute, and none of them actually happen. It’s like each vehicle is an extension of the driver’s body, and everyone is jostling and pushing against each other to get where they’re trying to go, but no one gets hurt. The only traffic rule that really works is stoplights. Honking is constantly used to communicate your presence and intentions to those around you. You rarely see a new-looking or sparsely occupied vehicle. Ancient, battered tro tros and taxis dominate the streets, most of them full to the brim with people and baggage. Most vehicles are European or Korean, all are diesel, and a Ghanaian acquaintance told me many are rejects from countries with smog control.

 

Pollution: In the cities we visited there was trash everywhere. There is no organized public waste system, so everyone collects their trash into piles and just burns it, any time of day, right there on the street with people all around to breathe it in. There is no smog control for vehicles either, and most vehicles produce very thick, stinky exhaust that is often dark grey or black. I sometimes wore a handkerchief over my mouth and nose while we were driving because the fumes made me nauseous.

 

Alright, back to QueenTech. We had ambitious plans for the trip: beginning the process of incorporating in Ghana, introducing a new machine design along with new tooling to build it, repairing four machines in four villages, building a relationship with Womentum (a non-profit that supports women entrepreneurs), beginning a rental agreement for a new workspace, holding a TIG welding workshop for our fabricators, creating and implementing new fabrication workflows, and a million other tasks of varying size and importance. We had eleven days.

 

Each day I would wake up at 6:45 a.m., throw on dirty work clothes and boots, knock on the doors of those who weren’t up yet (I was the Project Manager for the trip), and head to a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast with Lipton tea or instant coffee with evaporated milk. Around 7:40 we’d all cram into the tro tro for a hot, bumpy forty-five minute ride to Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (our partners, headquarters, and fabrication shop). On the first day we arrived at ITTU, there was a lot of smiling and shaking hands. Most of us were meeting the people who build our machines for the first time, and we were all very excited. For Ben Linder and Michael Resnick (our other trip leader), this was a reunion full of big hugs and loud greetings. We got to work immediately, some of us heading into meetings or doing computer work in our workroom, others in the machine shop.

 

We accomplished a lot of things in those eleven days, each day packed with surprises and novel experiences. We would work our butts off from 8:30 to 5, sometimes later, then bump and honk our way back to the guest house for a cold shower, an interesting dinner of not-quite-at-all-what-we-ordered, and two to three more hours of work in a lounge with one light bulb and a ceiling fan that violently threatened to tear itself apart with every revolution. Thoroughly exhausted and satisfied in the way only hard work can bring about, we would all drag ourselves off to bed somewhere between 9 and 10.

 

In ADE, we don’t just travel to work in our little niche and ignore the rest. We travel to have the mind-opening, humbling, incredible experience of living in a culture and place that is not our own. One particularly memorable experience was a tour of Cape Coast Castle. When our work at ITTU was done, we packed up our gear and drove six hours to Cape Coast Castle, one of the many slave castles built and ruled by European occupiers. We learned that during the triangular trade of slaves and raw and manufactured goods between West Africa, the Americas, and Europe, Cape Coast Castle held thousands of slaves for up to six weeks in pitch-black dungeons directly underneath the castle’s Christian church. The slaves remained shackled at all times, and food was thrown in on them from above. Discoloration two feet high on the walls indicated the level of human feces when the dungeons were excavated in 1920. The governor of the castle would select young women slaves to rape, and if they were “lucky” enough to get pregnant and give birth, they were set free. There’s a pitch-black tunnel that led the slaves from the dungeons to the waiting ships, so they never saw the light of their homeland until being loaded onto the ships through “the door of no return.” Sharks learned to follow the ships, as many dead and living slaves were cast overboard to lighten them. A moment of confusion and shock for me was seeing the room connecting the dungeon to the tunnel, where apparently there had been a great rock shrine where Ghanaians came to worship their traditional God of fertility before the castle was built. Here we stood, in what had been an ancient holy site of worship that was destroyed and turned into a channel for dehumanized people to drag themselves through, for the cruel white men with their own church built right on top of it. I could scarcely believe the hypocrisy and irony of it all.

 

Now I’m home in Berkeley, California, sitting at the kitchen table, typing this article. I admit it’s really lovely to be back. But since coming home I’ve been appalled even more than usual by the luxuries that my friends, my family, and I take for granted I’ve actually been quite ill since returning from Ghana, and although I knew taking a hot bath would help me feel better, it took a couple days to convince myself it was ok to use the water and energy to do so. A friend of mine just bought a dress for a price that could feed some families for a year. How can I feel comfortable with things like that? I can’t.

 

More and more I see my future lies in both comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable. I want to stress that both are crucial to a just and sustainable world. While efforts to improve the wellbeing of the majority are widely accepted and supported, efforts to say, “Hey, why do all the rich people feel like it’s okay to endlessly consume and plunder this planet we all share?” are largely restricted to vague political discussions and failed mini-revolutions. And by “rich people” I don’t just mean the richest one percent in the US. I mean the richest one percent in the world, which are mostly people like you and me. Olin College’s average starting salary is in the world’s top 0.5 percent, and even the U.S. poverty line makes the richest twenty percent. I ask you to consider your life, look deep within and ask yourself if you are doing everything you can to minimize your own impact and help those with none. I know I’m not, but I’m working at it every day. It’s hard, fun, satisfying, and possible, and it can start as soon as you are willing.

Horoscopes By Drunk Editors

Virgo (Aug. 23 – Sept. 22): If you think you shouldn’t , you probably really shouldn’t. Or you could do it and see what happens.

Libra (Sept. 23 – Oct. 22): Paranoia is a survival mechanism designed to keep you from being eaten, stabbed in the back, or poisoned.

Scorpio (Oct. 23 – Nov. 21): Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. Not that we endorse murder. Or suicide. Or even threats. We endorse nothing, nor are we endorsed by anyone. It’s a complicated legal thing.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22 – Dec. 21): Curiosity did kill the cat.

Capricorn (Dec. 22 – Jan. 19): Sometimes having seven different contingency plans is a good thing.
Aquarius (Jan. 20 – Feb. 18): You are going to have a wonderful week. It will feel like you’re walking on clouds, like the birds are singing just for you. Think about buying a lottery ticket. Profess your love to your secret crush. Take up that hobby that you’ve always previously failed at. There is no losing for you. It’s like being King Midas, except that you won’t find yourself accidentally killing the ones that you love when they give you congratulatory high fives. Like being Achilles, except your mother knew that tongs existed and was able to thoroughly dunk you in the River Styx. Like being the Chicago Cubs making it to Game 7’s 10th inning to finally end a 108 year dry streak. In short, there is nothing that you cannot do this week. Play your cards right, and it could go down in the history books as one of the single greatest weeks in human history. Don’t let this opportunity go to waste. You could solve world hunger. You could find the cure for cancer. And if you think this is all too good to be true…

Pisces (Feb. 19 – March 20): Put it back down. Walk away slowly.

Aries (March 21 – April 19): Foolhardy decisions are for fools. Not that you’re a fool…

Taurus (April 20 – May 20): Don’t do it.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20): You can never look over your shoulder too often.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22): Reevaluate your options.

Leo (July 23 – Aug. 22): Bulls shouldn’t play in China Shops.

Crossword Puzzle

Crossword

ACROSS

1 Smarty
7 Mars day
9 Christmas phrase
10 Irritating type of voice
14 Online craft market
15 Aware of (two words)
18 Tattle
19 How many to tango?
20 Slowly stop
21 Unusual
23 Long time
25 Bland color
27 Sing on a hill
30 Depends on
32 To ___ or not to ___
33 Break, in music
34 Back muscle, abbr
35 ___ Alto, CA
37 Many
39 Stuff to sell
40 Oliners
42 Brew
43 “I win this hand”
44 Pesky biter
45 Margaret’s nickname
47 TV trial of the century judge
48 Prefix for a PhD, abbr
49 State known for rain
51 Mediation? Just do this!
52 Shiny yellow
56 Skill
57 Skirmish
58 Getting up there
59 A new model

DOWN

1 Power
2 Littlest bit
3 Bird house
4 Clever
5 Writing vessel before ball point pens
6 tiny
7 Weasel type
8 Property
11 Way to soften a question
12 Express sympathy
13 Grassy places
16 Exist
17 Can’t
19 Unix translation
21 Relaxing
22 Popular Food Network celeb
23 Consume
24 Working
26 Ointment for cuts
28 Fruit
29 First state in the Union abbr
31 Jewelry
35 Diet type
36 Geometry 101 calculation
38 Homer’s neighbor
39 Disney bigwig
41 French coming-of-age film
44 Digit
45 Sound to get someone’s attention
46 Opposite of 57 Across
50 Nerve network
51 My love waits for me beyond it
53 Hooray to Juan
54 Cool light
55 ___, Daylight come and me wanna go home

ANSWERS BELOW

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-08-29 at 20.00.56

“Hello World”

I’m not a programmer, this is just what all the programming courses I’ve ever taken have asked me to start off typing. Bad nerd humor aside, hello.

To the first years and visiting students, welcome to Olin. I’m sure you’ve heard that far too many times over the last week, but allow me to say it once more. And to everyone else, welcome back.

This is Frankly Speaking, Olin’s unofficial, student-run newspaper. Up until a few weeks ago, literally run by one student (hi, I’m Jayce). There’s nothing wrong with having one student do all the production; there aren’t any deliberations over differing opinions, meeting times don’t have to be rescheduled when someone can’t make it, etc. And thankfully, Sophia Nielsen has offered to help with the production this year.

HOWEVER, it would be absolutely wonderful if more people could get involved in the paper. I’m graduating in the Spring (and no, I will not be back for an additional semester next Fall, God willing), so even if Sophia is still wants to work on the paper, it would be nice to be able to distribute the workload.

If you have any interest in in editing articles, laying out the print edition, uploading content to the website, or printing, folding, and distributing, come talk to/email me. (We’re not a club and therefore don’t have a snack budget, but candy could hypothetically be provided).

In other, non-recruiting news, y’all should write and/or draw for Frankly Speaking.

We will print virtually anything. A full set of guidelines can be found on our website at franklyspeakingnews.com/submit, but the short and sweet version is that we accept articles, opinion pieces, comics, drawing, stories, etc.

We do ask that all submissions be thoughtful of and respectful toward the Olin community. Any attacks on identity, be they racial, gender/sexuality, political, mental or physical health, socioeconomic status (for example) may be considered hate (as opposed to free) speech, and may not be printed.

Final say of print lies with the editors.

One change to submissions this year is that we will typically NOT be accepting anonymous submissions.

If you’re going to share your opinion with the community, have the guts to attach your name to it. And if you don’t want to have your name published with your statement, maybe you should reevaluate how strongly you feel about that statement.

Now that we’ve gotten all that fun stuff out  of the way,  get involved with Frankly Speaking. It’s always cool to see your name in print, whether you submitted content or helped produce said content.

 

Patiently awaiting a flood of emails,

 

Jayce

 

Edit (9/4/17): The statement was originally “One change to submissions this year is that we will NOT be accepting anonymous submissions.” This has been changed to be “typically NOT,” as we acknowledge that there may be situations where anonymity is necessary given the content of the article. 

Out of the Ashes

Chapter 9

 

“Your comrade,” Zhenjin says, “was exceedingly difficult to put down.”

The plainsman locks eyes with you again, disgust and anger still simmering in the depths of his gaze. But there is also grudging respect and curiosity and determination – teach me more about your kind, his eyes demand. Teach me how you think, how you act, how you fight.

Teach me, so one day I can kill you.

You nod. “And his body?”

Zhenjin goes still for the briefest of instants. You tune out murmured conversation and clinking cutlery and steady breathing until – there it is – his frantic heartbeat echoes in your ears.

“We burned it,” he replies, looking away from you. He’s lying.

You nod again. “Thank you for telling me.” Zhenjin shifts his weight slightly and opens his mouth to speak, and…

Something calls to you, a faint spark of power at the edge of your perception. You answer in kind, closing your eyes and drawing on your Shard–

 

~~

 

Image and sensation flash past one after another, almost too fast to follow. You run through the forest, cool air in your lungs, loyal hound at your side, twigs and branches and leaves crunching beneath your feet…

You hack away at a massive oak, arms burning with the exertion – something deep within the wood strains and creaks and snaps, and the tree begins to fall…

You stand at the base of the Tower, and all around the trees are red and gold with the colors of autumn (but it was winter when you arrived, white and cold and so silent)

You train under the watchful eye of your master (but you have never seen her in your life)

You join the war, bearer of the sixteenth Shard. You slip into tents and murder savages in their sleep, revenge for everything they’ve taken from you (but you were lucky, weren’t you? far from the front, family and friends safe and sound). On the last day of your life the tent is empty and the howling starts and there are teeth and claws and fangs ripping at your flesh and you fight but they–

(no this isn’t right, it can’t be right)

They–

No.

~~

 

With a silent scream of effort, you tear yourself from the swamp of memory. That is not who you are. You never did any of those things. You were not killed in battle. You are not Sixteen. You are not Johannes.

I am Forty-Seven, you tell yourself. I have crossed the sea on a mission – to serve and protect Lord Anselm during his talks with the Reshanese. I made it through the war.

I am alive, you tell yourself. I am alive.

You open your eyes, and barely a moment has passed in the Imperial banquet hall – nobody seems to notice what just transpired.

Nobody except Zhenjin. He looks at you, wide-eyed, reaching up to his heart in disbelief, and you put the pieces together. Ambassador Yesui’s quiet confidence in her ability to negotiate with the Reshanese, her odd choice of bodyguard, Zhenjin’s refusal to tell the truth…

The sixteenth Shard was never recovered, you remember your superiors saying. We will need a replacement soon.

“What,” you ask very quietly, “have you done–

“It was you,” Zhenjin growls, getting to his feet. “You killed my father.” His fists are clenched in rage, and his eyes burn with otherworldly fire.

Your fire.

 

~~

 

THE PLAINSMEN HAVE DONE THE IMPOSSIBLE – ONE OF THEIR WARRIORS WIELDS THE POWER OF YOUR FALLEN COMRADE. WHAT WILL YOU DO?

  1.   [Appeal to his honor. The Shard is a warrior’s weapon like any other. It belongs with Johannes’ kin.]
  2.   [Tell him the risks. He has not been trained as you have; the strain of bearing the Shard will kill him as surely as any blade. It belongs with you.]

 

IF NEGOTIATIONS FAIL…

  1.   [Duel him. You are stronger and more experienced, but he will not give up the chance to avenge his father. Kill him and retrieve the Shard.]
  2.  [Let him be. His guard is up, and the banquet hall is packed with witnesses. A better opportunity may arise later.]

 

A Defense of the Mercator Projection

If you’ve ever dabbled in cartography, geography, cultural imperialism, or that one scene from The West Wing, you’ve probably heard of the Mercator projection. If not, you’ve certainly seen it. The Mercator projection is the most common map projection for general-purpose world maps.

What is a map projection?

Map projection” describes any method of rendering the surface of the Earth onto a plane for easy viewing and storage. Because the sphere has curvature and the plane does not, any projection must have distortion in it, and because of the Hairy Ball Theorem, that distortion must always be extreme somewhere. Since it is mathematically impossible to create a perfect map of the Earth, there is much ongoing debate about which projections are best in which contexts. In such debates, to the Mercator projection is typically pointed as an overused, obsolete projection. It is, in a manner of speaking, the Comic Sans of map projections. Today, however, I seek to change the negative perception of Mercator by demonstrating that not only is it better than many of its commonly cited alternatives, but is actually the best map projection for many modern uses.

The Mercator Projection

The Mercator Projection

Firstly, why do people dislike Mercator? As previously stated, every projection must distort something. In Mercator, this is size. Landmasses near the poles appear much larger than those near the equator. The most commonly cited falsehood present in a Mercator map is the size of Greenland relative to that of Africa – Mercator shows them as roughly the same size, whereas Greenland is, in fact, 14 times smaller. This distortion is necessary to preserve what Mercator is designed to preserve: loxodromes.

A loxodrome, or rhumb line, is a line of constant bearing. While it is not the shortest path between two points on the Earth’s surface, it is the simplest one for sailors navigating with charts and compasses. In 1569, therefore, with this user group in mind, the Belgian Gerardus Mercator designed his projection such that loxodromes rendered as straight lines. Furthermore, the angles of loxodromes on the map matched their bearings on the Earth, such that sailors could calculate the bearing in which to sail with a Mercator projection and a protractor.

Over time, as European explorers, Mercator projections in hand, took over the world, Mercator became the de facto standard projection for all world maps, be they for decoration or education. As a result, many laymen began taking its distortion for truth, believing that regions near the equator were in fact as small as they appeared on the map. Because regions near the equator tended to be poorer than regions near the North Pole, this faulty mindset came to be criticized as cultural imperialism.

To be clear, the fact that Mercator’s Europe appears so large compared to Africa is a coincidence, not an intentional slight to non-Europeans. Cartographers across the world acknowledged the overuse of Mercator and, over the centuries, proposed many alternatives in an attempt to disperse the misconceptions caused by it. None were successful in overcoming Mercator’s tight grip on society.

In 1973, however, one Arno Peters claimed to have the solution, a revolutionary new projection that perfectly preserved the sizes of countries.  This map, according to Peters, was the only “area-correct” map, with “absolute angle conformality,” “no extreme distortions of form”, and “total… distance-factual[ity]”.*

The Gall-Peter's Projection

The Gall-Peter’s Projection

Cartographers were unimpressed. Some might even say they were Galled. Peter’s projection, a simple cylindrical equal-area projection, was by no means original. The exact projection had already been described in 1855 by James Gall, and it differed only in aspect ratio from the also preexisting Tobler World in a Square (1986), Balthasart (1935), Trystan Edwards (1953), Smyth-Craster (1870), Behrmann (1910), and Lambert cylindrical (1772) projections (all pictured at the end of the article).

Whether Peters knew about the existence of any of these maps is a matter of debate, but there is no uncertainty that most of the things he claimed about his “invention” were completely false.

The only area-correct map? There are dozens of named equal-area projections, most of which, such as Tobler’s elliptical projection (pictured at the end of the article), are more accurate than Gall-Peters. Absolute angle conformality? Gall-Peters is by no means conformal; that is a specific term reserved for the elite likes of Mercator, Stereographic, Pierce Quincuncial, and a few others. No extreme distortions of form? Landmasses near the poles are distorted beyond recognition, and landmasses on the equator are twice as tall as they should be, a factor that arguably borders on “extreme”. Total distance factuality? The only correct distances are East-West distances along the standard parallel, which Peters chose as 45 degrees. While the Eurocentricism present in Mercator is a coincidence, it is harder to argue the same for Peter’s arbitrary choice of the standard parallel that intersects most of the Western world. Other popular claims, that North-South lines run vertically and East-West lines run horizontally, are true of all cylindrical projections, including Mercator, and pose no real benefit by themselves.

Despite all this, his campaign worked. The “Peters World Map” spread like wildfire, fanned by Peter’s compelling case of falsehoods and the world’s burgeoning dislike for Eurocentricism and cultural imperialism. It even continues to be popular today. In 2001, it was featured prominently in an episode of The West Wing. The Oxford Cartographers officially sanction the Gall-Peters projection. Just this May, new legislature here in Boston required public schools to use the Gall-Peters projection to teach geography.

But enough about the Gall-Peters projection. The fact that its main competitor is awful doesn’t make Mercator any better. There are still hundreds of projections from which to choose, and compared to those, the Mercator is still outdated and biased, right?

I direct your attention to Google Maps, perhaps the most-viewed map in the world. While Google’s choice of the Mercator projection may seem a simple case of ignorance, Mercator is objectively the best projection for online map applications for the same reason it was objectively the best for naval explorers pre-GPS: loxodromes. If lines of constant bearing are straight lines, then the angles at which they intersect are also constant, both on the sphere and on the plane. This means that perpendicular intersections on Earth look perpendicular on the map.

Furthermore, because Mercator is cylindrical, North is always up, East always right, etc. This is not prejudice; this is convention. Navigation is significantly easier, especially for those not well versed in maps, when all maps of the same area face the same direction.

Together, these properties mean that a Google Maps user can zoom into the image and see their location mapped out with no distortion of shape or direction, and have that image match exactly any other local maps they might own. Who cares about size distortion when users will rarely look at an area bigger than 100 kilometers? Any other map projection would be incompatible with Google Maps, as either North would change direction unpredictably based on the user’s location, or streets would skew, making it difficult to compare the map to the user’s surroundings. For this reason, Mercator holds and deserves a special place in our internet culture.

Perhaps the most useful quality of Mercator, though, is its status as an anathema. People like few things more than something about which to complain. Mercator has long been the first thing novice cartographers learn to dislike. I realise that, if my case was successful, I may have damaged this property for you. Worry not. If you need a map projection to truly hate, and the Gall-Peters projection is not ugly enough (controversy aside, it’s not _that_ bad of a projection), then look no further than the space between the pool room and the mail room, where a Van der Grinten projection hangs for the college to see.

The Van der Grinten  Projection

The Van der Grinten Projection

The Van der Grinten projection, National Geographic’s projection of choice from 1922 to 1988, is often confused with Mercator. Make no mistake, though. Loxodromes are not straight lines on Van der Grinten, nor is North always up. Invented in 1898 by Alphons J. Van der Grinten with the intention of reducing the distortion of Mercator, this projection fails on practically every count.

While the distortion present in Van der Grinten is technically less than that in Mercator, Greenland still looks almost as big as Africa, and by changing the shape of the map from an infinitely tall cylinder to a circle, Van der Grinten destroyed all of the useful properties that made Mercator popular. Alaska, displayed on Mercator with a disproportionate size but reasonable shape, appears on Van der Grinten even more disproportionately large and stretched disproportionately tall. On the bright side, Van der Grinten’s Europe appears with less distortion than it does in Mercator.

While the Mercator Projection is far from the best projection and is certainly overused, several of the projections designed to fix its problems are just as, if not more, problematic. Furthermore, its current place as the butt end of most map projection discussions is undeserved. Mercator has no place in a geography classroom, but it is the only projection for online mapping services, and holds an important place in our history. With all of this in mind, I hope that the next time you hear someone complain about Mercator and extol Boston for switching to Gall-Peters, you rise to Mercator’s defense and remind them just how awful Van der Grinten is in comparison.

 

*Citation note: Wikipedia’s Gall-Peters page shows these phrases in quotes with citations, but I have been unable to find the publications that these citations reference, so take that as you will as far as the credibility of these quotes.

The Trystan Edwards Projection

The Trystan Edwards Projection

Tobler's World in a Square Projection

Tobler’s World in a Square Projection

Tobler's Hyperelliptical Projection

Tobler’s Hyperelliptical Projection

The Smyth-Craster Projection

The Smyth-Craster Projection

The Lambert Cylindrical Projection

The Lambert Cylindrical Projection

The Berhmann Projection

The Berhmann Projection

The Balthasart Projection

The Balthasart Projection

Denmark’s America

As I sat in the Studenterhuset (the Danish student center) on January 20th, watching the inauguration of Donald Trump, it was silent. While I heard conversations in english here and there, the crowd was mostly Danish. All around me they stared straight ahead as the commentators spoke, hanging on to every detail. I had been in Denmark for only a week, but it was already clear that I was no further from U.S. politics than I was back in Massachusetts. It all seemed so close and yet foreign at the same time.

A few weeks later, after dinner with a Danish family, I got the question I had been warned was coming. “So, what do you think about the new president?” We sat with our coffee and discussed the ins and outs of the American election system, the political climate, and the future of the U.S. After an hour, I sheepishly asked, “So, how do elections work in Denmark?” While these two Danes had been talking about the most complex details of the entire American political system, I hadn’t the slight idea about how any of that worked in Denmark. More recently, I spoke with some of the Danes I live with in my kollegium (Danish student housing). They spoke with the all the confidence of informed citizens, but also with a understanding that it was a one way street. What happened in the U.S. had a large effect on their lives, but there was little they could do to affect it.

It feels like a strange time to study abroad. When I wake up each morning, I see a list of news notifications on my phone about what happened in Washington while I was sleeping. I too start to feel like the Danes. I read the news and listen to the radio but then I walk outside and it all seems so foreign. I get an email that says “Call your senator” at least once a day but I shake it off, thinking, “I can’t call, I don’t have an international plan” or, “Postage to the States is real expensive.” Even so, what happens in the U.S. is impossible to ignore. I have never watched a Danish prime minister inauguration. Even while living here, I have heard little discussion of Danish politics. And yet, every day the front page of the Danish newspaper is something to do with the U.S.

Last weekend I went to the Science March in Copenhagen. I couldn’t help but find it strange that this march, inspired by marches being held around the U.S., was happening so far away from where it’s impact was suppose to be felt. Countless people held signs and listened to speeches as if they were on the mall in DC. I flew across an ocean and, even here, there were people who were committed to American politics that didn’t even have a say. More committed, I’m ashamed to admit, than I have been at times.

Studying abroad at a time like this has been strange and even frustrating at times. But living in outside the U.S. has given me a new view of American politics. What happens in the U.S. does not stay in the U.S. People all around the world are watching and waiting. If a Dane can make a sign and march in the cold to send the U.S. a message from across the Atlantic, as someone that has actual power to make change, I better do a heck of alot more than just call my senator.

Engineer in Social Benefit

Caroline Condon graduated from Olin College of Engineering in 2013. She took ADE for her Capstone and joined Engineers without Borders Canada after graduation. They connected her with Voto Mobile in Ghana. For the last two years she has lived and worked in Bamako, the capital of Mali, at a company called MyAgro. I interviewed her over video chat, where she used her office Wifi on a quiet weekday.

What do you work on?

The company that I work for sells seeds and fertilizer to smallholder farmers.

I work on agricultural tools. Our core products are seeds and fertilizer, but we’re also developing a tools portfolio, that I run.

What’s an example of a tool in your portfolio?

One of the tools is a planting machine, it’s called a “semoir”, which means “thing that plants” in French.

It’s got a slanted disc that scoops up the seeds and drops them out one at a time. And then, it has fertilizer that’s stored in a separate box. It puts a little bit of fertilizer next to every single seed (“microdosing”). It’s a lot more effective than spreading fertilizer all over the field.

How does the pricing work for a social benefit product?

We’re selling them at cost, at about $300 USD, to a population whose income is $1–1.50 per day. I would say that this product’s customer is the richer set of our clients– who are still, on a global scale, poor.

It’s by far the most expensive of our products. We’re focusing on reducing our manufacturing cost now, to make it accessible to everyone.

The demand is high at this price. But even if we filled the demand, there would still be a large chunk of farmers not using a semoir and microdosing . Our ultimate goal is to sell our semoir at the same price as non-microdosing planters.

Farmers work hard. they deserve good tools. It’s my privilege to be able to try to build those.

What’s an interesting project you worked on?

They sent me on a trip to China, to do the quality control visit at the factory. Our goal was to get a better idea of what parts are expensive, so that we could design them out.

They knew we had concerns about the cost. But sometimes they’d come back with suggestions that would make zero sense if you’d seen the machine in action. For example, they asked if we could make the holes bigger in the seed scoop. Then they could use a cheaper drill. But if they’re bigger, more seeds will fall into them. Their fundamental property is how large they are. They didn’t get it.

We found a plot near their building, and planted some soybeans with one of the tests, so they could see it in action.

A lot of why I went to China was relationship building. I brought a bunch of pictures of our farmers using it, which made them excited. That’s something I should have realized ahead of time– we had never sent them any video or anything.

They didn’t realize who was buying these machines from us. They thought we were selling them to the UN or something, who was giving them away for free. They hadn’t realized, oh, you’re selling them to farmers? No wonder you care so much about price!

How did you start working in social benefit?

Right after graduation, I moved to Ghana with the Canadian Engineers Without Borders.

In the development world, there’s been a lot of movement in the last couple of years to use phones. Voto Mobile’s first partner was a maternal health organization in northern Ghana. When women came into the clinic for prenatal care, they could sign up for text messages of health advice.

But they did a bunch of interviews, and they found out that 80% of the women couldn’t read the messages. The local language in this area is hard to write; you can’t get the right characters on a phone. So the texts were in English. Some women were having their kids read them when they got home from school.

Voto started by creating a platform for voice recordings rather than texts.

Why did you move to Mali?

I was not doing technical work, because I have no computer background. I decided I didn’t want to be away from engineering for so long. I was looking online, on Idealist.

MyAgro, where I work now, had this shipment of semoirs coming in on a boat from China. They had no one to put them together. So I came to do that. I had no connection with them, didn’t know any thing about Mali, didn’t speak any French. But I ended up staying.

Can you tell me about living in Mali?

Living here feels ordinary, at this point.

Bamaco is the safest city I’ve ever lived in, anywhere in the world. It’s very laid back, petty crime is very uncommon. Walking through the markets, no one has ever tried to pickpocket me.

People sit out on the streets until very, very late at night. That’s where a lot of common life takes place. They play checkers, and they make tea. So I could walk home at midnight from a bar, and pass all my neighbors.

Mali is great. It’s been a real privilege to me to be able to move around and live in different places. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance.