Posted July 10th, 2016 by Nate Wessel

I’ve heard it said that ours may be the age of the “mega-city.” Cities like Cincinnati, where I came of age, seem to be in an uncomfortable middle zone. With a metro of 2.1 million people, substantially larger I might note than the city of Rome at it’s climax in the first century, Cincinnati is to many a sleepy, provincial town. Yet to me, coming as I did from that homogeneous shmear we Americans all know and love, it was Metropolis.

This is so far a familiar story, and my cliches are already making me a little queasy. Will I be able to avoid them?

To my friends, some of them, Cincinnati was a layover. It’s not that they got there, many of them, gave it a couple years, and then changed their minds, but rather that they came from high school already with the ambition of making it to New York or other big eastern cities. In my program especially, people co-oped half the year in other cities, in Cincinnati only three months at a time for four consecutive years. These people grew attached to other places and got jobs there.

How many dates did I go on with people I knew would be leaving?

As a planner though, and perhaps as one with typically little concern for his own economy, I grew attached, got involved, and made lasting friendships in a place that could ultimately offer me little work.

2.1 million people. If you met one person every five seconds and never slept, it would take more than seven years to meet every Cincinnatian, assuming they all stayed put for a damn second. And I couldn’t find satisfying work that payed more than a stipend. Bigger than Rome and I couldn’t find the work society tells me I deserve.

Having found all my best friends, and even a husband, in Cincinnati, it has now come to pass that everyone that I really care about is living in a different city. Not just not in my city, but each in their own.

Cincinnati, New York, San Fransisco, Denver, and me in Toronto. The closest any of these cities are to another is 550km. Even my family will be split soon as my little sister goes off to college in Boston and my parents retire to who knows where.

How ’bout them cliches? Can this get any more boring? People moving, getting older, life changes, yadda yadda.

But I feel like I need to stop here and just ask: What the hell is going on? That everyone I care about should not only not be in the same general place but scattered utterly across the continent. Is this the modern condition?

Most people of course don’t make it this far. Most aren’t this mobile. Most don’t go to college. Many people live with their families or could walk to their parents’ house if they laced up some comfy shoes. But for me and my peers, the academics with whom I am presently associating, we are the jet-set without the money. Hopping from one gig to the next, and I count a term-limited stipend-salary PhD or masters as a gig, we seem prevented from really setting deep roots anywhere except in our own ambitious media-fed dreams for the future, in Metropolis.

What deeper effect this has, and it always seems wise to wrap up with some musing on the deeper meaning of it all, I can only wonder at. But it seems to me that for the foreseeable future, the West’s non-wealthy elite, the mobile educated, will be rootless and alienated from the spaces they occupy. Renters all their lives, never settling, ever taking the excuse of a conference in who-knows-where for the chance of seeing old friends, neither of you from this place that you’ll occupy only once together and ephemerally at that, those places competing viscously for our indifferent attendance.

The world grows homogeneous, the cities blur together. We are always in metropolis, and yet so far apart.

The time has come that if I wanted to settle down, and selfishly make a home for myself at once, I would have to start by moving to New York or San Fransisco. These places, where I have never lived, hold the most of my friends. Now it’s interesting to note that my partner, of a lower class than me through no fault of his own, which I think is relevant, very much has all of his friends in Cincinnati. Which of us, in the abstract, might be said to have the better life? What are the costs of ambition today? What are the benefits of immobility?

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What’s for dissert? Attempting psychoanalysis

Posted May 3rd, 2016 by Nate Wessel

I posted here recently about my recent failure to get excited about sewing. Let this one then be about my failure to get excited about planning and geography. Now beside being something I used to like to do, geography has the special quality that it currently pays my bills, gives me an office to work from, and puts me in touch regularly with moderately interesting people.

So I really should try to enjoy it, lest I find myself without a livelihood, and also as the case would be for sewing, without another chunk of my identity, and without a thing quite capable of making me happy and fruitfully engaging my mind.

All of this turmoil reduces, I think, to the following problem: In Ohio, I was abnormal in a number of particular dimensions; in Toronto, I am not, or not in the same familiar ways. A few contrasts then:

I could go on, but my point is, and I think I’ve made it by now, that two major pillars of my self image have been eroded by this new normalcy. Have I realized that I am normal?

There is an analogy here, and one many readers will I’m sure be more familiar with. In high school, I was one of the only gay kids. In college, I was one of many. I became normal after having to some extent established an identity on difference. The way I dealt with this all through undergrad was with excitement. I jumped right in, attending the meetings of the university GSAs, becoming a leader of one of them, and eventually branching out from there into leadership of the larger regional queer organizations, which I ultimately served with for years before being kicked out for [it’s a long story].

When I was kicked out of my big, gay ecosystem, I was left with geography and cartography for comfort. I turned more toward fashion design, and other visual pursuits, or less toward the things which had turned from me, and this ultimately led me gladly into grad school, the subject of which had begun to overlap very nicely with the subject of my interests.

From grad school, I ran to grad school, for I hadn’t yet had enough. But the engine that kept me going in Cincinnati was my frustration with the transit system and its supporters, an impulse to correct those silly bastards. In that frustration, in the height of that impulse to fix things, I find myself run off the edge of the cliff, with nothing familiar to hang on to. The frustration that nourished me was suddenly removed from beneath my feet.

To that other analogy then, I must turn for guidance and I see that in high school, I wasn’t driven by a negative emotion, but by pride if I may appropriate that word to myself, and later by a more biological impulse and eventually by a sense of community and a friendship for a people that I came to see as my own family.

Do I have no pride in riding a bike, though I’ve moved to the gayborhood? Do I have no pride in the way I make myself look, though I’ve moved to metropolis?

The dangerous part of the analogy is that I now take my gayness thoroughly for granted and don’t spend any effort at all working inside the ‘gay community’ such as it is any more. Could the same happen for my other interests, that they become part of my past more than my present? But, to continue analogically, I must see now that I’m in the stage of this interest wherein I have come into a position of leadership, am inside the community of transportation and planning people, and can see them as family if not quite as so friendly a one as the gays were (certainly they are given more to handshakes than to hugs). What motivated me in that stage and why now does it seem weak?

I guess I felt like I was making a difference, like my contributions were respected, and that I had friends all around me. The friends part is slowly, too slowly, developing here in Toronto. But what is there for me to do now that makes a difference in a city, in a country that already has digested the corpus of contemporary planning dogmas?

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Radial KDE Visualization for Directed Flows

Posted April 29th, 2016 by Nate Wessel

From some work I did recently for the Cincinnati Chamber:

These images summarize some fairly sketchy census migration data, showing the general direction from which or toward which people move relative to the Cincinnati region. So for example, a large red bump on the left may mean that many people are leaving Cincinnati and moving west. A blue bump to the northeast might mean some people are moving to Cincy from Cleveland or Columbus. Greens are balanced flows.


This visualization responds to a need to show some geographic dimension to data which, though detailed to the county level, has massive sampling error and a great many missing estimates. Estimating the number of migrants between, say, the Cincinnati MSA and the Los Angeles MSA is certainly possible with this data, but the estimated error are so high as to make a map of the estimates themselves nearly useless, especially with any degree of disaggration such as that seen in these images.

As long as I’ve understood margins of error myself1, I’ve understood that it should be basically hopeless to try to get lay people to understand the implications of MOE estimates.

Anyway, some interesting patterns emerge here. Note the big southward outflow of retirees for instance. Or note the high and relatively balanced interactions between Cincinnati and it’s sisters to the Northeast: Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland.


And here we see, at least, that people moving for military purposes are much less evenly distributed than people in other professions, surely the result of a small number of important military bases.

Now, the chamber didn’t quite ask for these visualizations of course, but they’re what I gave them because I didn’t want to feel responsible for any overconfident interpretations which would be inevitably if the data were simply mapped with census boundaries. With this presentation, the data looks like it can’t give you any real specifics, which is true.


The data comes from American Community Survey county-to-county migration estimates. Images were made with a combination of PostGIS, R and Inkscape. I can make some code available if anyone cares to email me.

  1. Only a few years, honestly

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osm2po’s “flag” field explained

Posted March 4th, 2016 by Nate Wessel

I don’t do many technical posts here, but this one took me a while to figure out, so I thought I’d just quickly upload my knowledge into the world’s search indexes for all those helpless people out there trying to decypher osm2po‘s config file.

The ‘flag‘ field that osm2po creates in your SQL file is used to indicate the modes of travel that are permissible on an edge. First, you must tell the program what modes you want to consider:

wtr.flagList = car, bike, foot

These modes, in this order, determine the value that will be assigned to an edge’s ‘flag’. In this case, we get car=1, bike=2, foot=4. Note that these are decimal representations of the digits of a binary number! You get up to 5 digits or 32 possible flags because this is a 32bit field.

A value of 1 (given the ordering above) means that only cars can use the edge. A value of 2 means that only bikes can.

The flag field represents the digits of a binary number where each digit is one of five possible modes, which are determined by the ordering given in wtr.flaglist. You can then determine whether some mode can use an edge by a little modular division.

Modal access is the business of much of the rest of the config file and I won’t get into that here.

Happy routing!

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Fashionable excuses

Posted December 31st, 2015 by Nate Wessel

Well, damn, huh? I moved to a city with a fashion district, and my last five posts have been about maps, stuff I could be working on literally anywhere.

The first few months in Toronto have seemed to see me divorced from my physical, tangible work; I’ve sewn a few things, sure, but nothing interesting, nothing that engaged my mind as much as my hands. I was trying to figure this out over the winter break and came to a few conclusions:

  1. I’ve been busy. Let’s just get that out of the way, though it isn’t the interesting answer or the most truthful one.
  2. My new apartment is too clean and new; I can’t tack shit up all over the place for inspiration. I’m currently working on making a mess of it.
  3. I don’t know anyone here beyond a few people, so what’s it matter what I look like? Part of the fun for me may have been just in making myself uncomfortable around people I know, rebelling against any personal identity as it began to form in anyone’s mind. Or in my own?
  4. I’m no longer surrounded by artists capable of understanding form. Academics, every day!
  5. Or, to elaborate on #3 further: am I saying that I have to feel known to be seen? Or that communication is properly dialectic rather than expressive? Does that sound like vapid nonsense? Will anyone who finds themselves outside of my head understand what I meant by that? I mean that without a shared context of formal expectation, a shared expectation of what certain things usually look like, there is little message content to a violation of the non-expectation. This is related to entropy and information theory, which makes me suspect my own thoughts. Just because I happen to be reading a book on that topic right now, doesn’t make it relevant!

So… I really need to get on top of making something! I have well over a thousand dollars worth of fabrics and materials just lying in piles, and more than a dozen stores within walking distance if I found myself missing anything at all.

What’s on the block?

Well, I should stop making lists that no one will read now. With hope, publishing this on new years eve will help to cement these little plans in my mind and perhaps with luck some of them will make the transition into jpg and then into your own mind.


Upcoming presentation at AAG 2016

Posted December 13th, 2015 by Nate Wessel

From the abstract of my upcoming presentation at AAG 2016 in San Francisco:

Mapping dead-ends: how and where to consider noise reduction

Algorithmic detection of dead-ends and indirect streets could help cartographers create more legible transportation maps. In this presentation, we briefly cover algorithmic techniques for dead-end detection, borrowing many ideas from graph theory. We then apply these techniques to a sample of regions, using OpenStreetMap data, to discover the spatial variability in potential for geometry simplification, particularly as modes vary between car, foot, and bike. In what sort of regions and for which modes should we consider reducing the visual noise introduced by dead-ends and highly indirect streets?

This is something I’ve been toying with since the Cincinnati bike map last year, where I implemented Tarjan’s Algorithm to detect and diminish simple dead-ends.

Cincinnati bike map

The effect on clarity, at least for me, was remarkable and totally novel. At least until Minh pointed out that Google Maps has been doing something similar for at least a couple years (fuck!). Well, in any case, they haven’t done it all that well, and I still haven’t seen it on any other maps that I’m aware of doing it. The point of this paper/presentation will be to explore other possibilities for dead-end detection, a bit past what can be done with Tarjan’s very useful Algorithm, and to think about some ways that such dead-ends could be visualized and what difference any of this makes anyway, particularly as we consider which mode a map (explicitly or implicitly) is designed for.

So, I know no one reads this, but if anyone finds themselves in SF this March/April, I hope you’ll drop by and make my world feel slightly smaller!