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Saturday 6 February 2016

Putting “ Swim for the reef ” on the map

The Queensland Environmental Defenders Office should be pleased with its Swim for the Reef fundraiser on 23 January 2016. Teams of swimmers clocked up 5,700 laps (285 km)​—​that’s about a tenth of the length of the Great Barrier Reef itself.

Musicians jamming in the shade, overlooking the Musgrave Park Swim­ming Pool.

A couple of weeks before the event my friend Jo Bragg, CEO of EDO Qld, asked if I could produce a map to plot the progress of the swim. We agreed a map of the Great Barrier Reef, marked with a line to represent the distance swum, would be a tangible expression of the abstract idea of swimming for the reef. I said “yes, I can do that” and “give me a day or two to work out how”.

Instead of having a paper map displayed in one place, I thought it should be published on the web and regularly up­dated during the event (to support the social media campaign). I wanted to show the islands and reefs in detail (to re­in­force that the Great Barrier Reef is a real place). And I wanted the path of the swim to follow the typical track taken by ships as they weave through the hazards.

I discussed the project with Thom Blake who has done more on­line mapping than I have. I followed his suggestion to use Map­Box to create and update the map. MapBox Studio did the job, and it was free, though I found it confusing and poorly doc­u­mented.

The base layers came from the wonderful OpenStreetMap, which I think of as the wikipedia of online maps. Unfortunately, un­der­wa­ter reefs have not yet been included in OpenStreetMap.

Fortunately the GBRMPA (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority) website provided a kml data file which I used to show all the reefs on the map.

I decided to show the accumulated distance swum by the par­ti­cipants, laid out along a route that a ship might take from the southern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (just north of Fraser Island) to the northern limit of the area in the Torres Strait. I used a GBRMPA map of designated shipping areas to plot a course as far as Cairns. For the tightly regulated route north of Cairns I used the exact route specified by AMSA (the Australian Maritime Safety Authority). The whole route is drawn on the map as a thin red line. Then, as I received reports from the EDO people who were keeping count of the laps, I added a thicker red line to show progress.

A snapshot of the map at the end of the 2016 event. The thick red line, showing the accumulated laps of all participants, starts at the southern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, and extends 285 km along the shipping route. The ‘landmark’ nearest to the 2016 end point is Innamincka Shoal, about 15 km away.

The event has its own Facebook page, though I paid more at­ten­tion to what was happening on Twitter.

I expect that next year the event will make an even bigger splash (and raise even more money to support the EDO). I’ll try to make the map better too​—​there is room for improvement.

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Friday 22 January 2016

Swimming for the reef

The Environmental Defenders Office is an independent com­munity legal centre in Queensland. It does stalwart work to protect the environment. Among its many other activities, the EDO recently represented conservation groups in court cases about dredging and dumping of spoil in the Great Barrier Reef.

The EDO depends on community support to operate. Its latest fund-raiser is Swim for the Reef​—​an event in which teams of supporters swim as far as they can (in a swimming pool) between midday and midnight on 23 January 2016. I encourage you to sign up as a swimmer, and/or donate to the cause.

I’m not much of a swimmer, but I am showing my support by making an online map on which I’ll plot the total dis­tance swum.

The aim (which will take more than one annual event to achieve) is to swim a total distance greater than the length of the Great Bar­rier Reef​—​more than 2,300 km. This will remind every­one of the vast scale of this important place. I hope that by plotting the swimmers’ progress on the online map I will re­in­force our con­nec­tion with the reef.

The thin red line on the map shows the track taken by a ship traversing from south to north, as it weaves through the hazards of the Great Barrier Reef. The swim­mers’ progress will be plotted along this track.

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Saturday 12 December 2015

Christmas afloat

This will be my fifth year of sending out Christmas cards by email. It’s my way to cut the clutter that comes with the summer solstice.

This season’s card displays another sen­ti­mental picture from a Victorian illustrated magazine. Please enjoy more strange cus­toms (in­volving bunches of prickly and parasitic vegetation); more foreign places (England, in the 1890s); and more outmoded tech­no­logy (the rowing boat, the paddle steamer, the wood en­grav­ing).

‘Christmas Afloat’, wood engraving published in the 21 December 1895 issue of The Illustrated London News.

I am not sure who drew this charming picture, but there is a good clue. In the bottom left corner are the initials FWB​—​probably Frederick Wood Baker (1862–1936). Baker was a Londoner, and a painter of mari­time scenes set on the south coast of England.

The paddle steamer Mavis. [Photo source, which credits Tom Lee’s Paddle Steamer Picture Gallery, but I can’t find the picture on that site.]

When I went looking for pictures of paddle steamers that might have been the model for ‘Christmas Afloat’ I was struck by sim­il­ar­it­ies with the Mavis​—​a steamer built in 1888 that operated on the River Thames. Did Baker base ‘Christ­mas Afloat’ on sketches of this vessel?

I am puzzled by the story ‘Christmas Afloat’ is meant to tell. Where is the ship supposed to be? She is not under way​—​the paddle wheel appears to be stopped. The decks are not level, so I suppose the ship is rolling, perhaps at anchor in open water with a bit of a swell running. Is the ship waiting for crew or passengers to come out in a boat? Or a pilot? Could this be Christmas Eve, and the four men in the boat are bringing a special delivery of holly and mistletoe to decorate the saloon?

I don’t have answers to these questions, though it is pleasant to ponder them. I’ll leave you with the piece of verse that was printed with the picture. Let’s stand up and recite these lines in a strong clear voice:

Sing hey for the steamer afloat !
    Sing ho for the rudder and oar !
For here comes a brave little boat
    Abreast on the surf from the shore,

    With bunches of holly galore
And mistletoe fresh from the tree.
    The tempest may roar, but here is a store
Of greetings for Christmas at sea.

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Wednesday 4 November 2015

Hints for visitors

Taking off your shoes, before you go into a room, can change your frame of mind. That simple ritual can concentrate your attention on the space you are entering.

Visitors to Mission House at Kerikeri in New Zealand are greeted by a sign that says These are New Zealand’s oldest floors. They will last longer if you take off your shoes. I was happy to com­ply with that polite request, and to save the floor from un­ne­ces­sary wear. At the same time, my feet were sensitive to the texture of the floor, which prompted a discussion with the museum guide about the English and Māori workers who had pitsawn those boards in the early 1820s.

These are New Zealand’s oldest floors. They will last longer if you take off your shoes.​—​ Sign beside the front door at the Mission House, Kerikeri Mission Station, Bay of Islands, April 2004.

As a visitor to museums and historic places I enjoy experiences like this​—​interactions that bring the place to life in an easy and natural way.

The garden front, Mission House.

Seen from inside the house, this young visitor has taken off her boots and is about to walk into the house, where her stockinged feet will feel those pitsawn Kauri pine floorboards and that woven matting.

Edward Tufte is an American academic who studies the com­mu­nic­a­tion of complex data. He tells this story about giving in­form­a­tion in the best form, and at the best time, for it to be absorbed.

Whites gloves = Don’t touch

In my one-day course, I show 3 rare books: a 1570 Euclid, a 1613 Galileo, and a 1704 Newton. Then my assistant car­ries each book, open to the title page, around the room so people can get a close look. We had a problem with people wanting to touch the pages of the wonderful books; and a few people would sulk if told they could not touch the pages. So now my assistant pointedly wears white cloth gloves while showing the books to signal that they should not be touched.

That is, unobtrusive instructions at point of use.

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