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An Imaginary Town Becomes Real, Then Not (npr.org)
174 points by dalek2point3 on Oct 23, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments

Reminds me of three of my favorite words: Nihilartikel, mountweazel, and dord:




"Nihilartikel" is a German word for "fictitious entry", and it's amazing that a language which makes noun phrases into words has a specific word for this concept we express as a noun phrase. Let me gladwell on about how this tells me deep and profound things about sauerbraten and German psychology. Truly, we have much to learn from this peaceful, gentle, and thoroughly Othered group.

"Mountweazel" is a word which came from the name of a fake person used as a fictitious entry. It's just fun to say.

"Dord" is a genuine accident, which was supposed to mean density when someone misread an annotation about abbreviations: "D or d, density".

> it's amazing that a language which makes noun phrases into words has a specific word for this concept we express as a noun phrase.

How are you distinguishing english "noun phrases" from german "words"? Being spelled with a space doesn't mean much, and english compound nouns don't generally get separated.

edit, some examples of what I'm talking about:

"throw away", in the sense "discard", what you do with garbage, is a word from a lexical perspective (a lexeme): it requires its own lexical entry, and is unrelated to the similar-looking construction "throw away" with the sense "without necessarily moving, use a violent arm motion to impart velocity to an object, causing that object to move away from oneself".

But "throw away" [discard] is definitely not a word at the syntactic level, it is two: other words can appear between the "throw" token and the "away" token, as in I had him throw it away.

The clitic 's of He's going to have a hard time later is also a word at the lexical level (exactly equivalent to is), and at the syntactic level (because it can be freely used basically anywhere, preceded and followed by any other words). But at the phonological level, it isn't; 's is a (usually) zero-syllable construction phonologically dependent on the preceding word, and unlike a normal word, it has no pronunciation in isolation (that would be difficult to manage in zero syllables).

It's easy to construct compound nouns such as "garage door opener" in English, and (I believe; I have almost no knowledge of German) easy to construct compound nouns that look like "garagedooropener" in German. It's never been obvious to me that those two phenomena differ in anything except their spelling, hardly a fundamental feature of a language. Once we've constructed the compound "garage door opener", it's very rare to manipulate it in any way we wouldn't be comfortable doing if it were all one big spaceless word -- in particular, other words won't appear between the "garage", "door", and "opener" tokens.

If pressed, my personal opinion would be that "garage door opener" is a noun phrase in English, and the analogous construct is also a noun phrase in German, even if it's spelled without spaces. But I'd welcome somebody else's informed opinion.

My takeaway from a couple of years of linguistics is that you're completely correct. Both English and German form compound nouns in the same way. It's a typographic difference more so than anything else -- modern English defaults to separating compounds with a space, German typography just doesn't allow for that.

As English compounds get more entrenched, they tend to be hyphenated -- which German also allows for, occasionally -- and then fused.

Extremely long compound nouns are rare in both languages, mostly, I'd think, because they get conceptually unwieldy. It's easier (I would argue/guess) to understand a sentence talking about what the captain of the Danube steamship company did than a sentence about what the Danube steamship company captain did. Both utterances are noun phrases and have practically the same meaning.

It's still possible that German and English speakers differ in the way they use compound nouns -- e.g. how often they use compounds instead of paraphrasing them or how spontaneously they form new, unfamiliar compounds.

garage door opener would be translated to Garagentoröffner or Garagentüröffner. (door = Tür or Tor, depending on context, opener = Öffner).

See "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" for a fictional take on this.

Meta-comment about the Borges connection: I'm continually astounded by how prescient his work was. "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" was published in 1940, so I suppose it's possible he, in Argentina, heard about this court case in New York, but I doubt it.

Other examples:

The Garden of Forking Paths: qualitative pre-figuring of the many worlds interpretation of QM, before that was a thing.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote: A character's bibliography contains references to Descartes, Leibniz, and the work sheets of a monograph on George Boole's symbolic logic. Now, I don't know the answer to this one, but maybe someone can help: Was George Boole considered an important philosopher in 1939? Claude Shannon published his famous master's thesis applying Boolean logic to electric circuits in 1938 in " Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers." - so again, I suppose Borges could have known about it through that, but it seems unlikely, So, of all the philosophers he could have chosen, why George Boole?

Borges was well-read and read English and international works extensively (in fact, English was his first language, not Spanish), so it's not completely unreasonable that he kept abreast of new developments. It's still a stretch that he would know about some random court case in New York.

It's odd to me that you characterize Boole as a philosopher--I've always heard of him as a mathematician. His work on an algebraic formalization of logic is foundational to the modern field of logic, which was the primary area of mathematic research (along with set theory) for the first three or so decades of the 1900's. For example, the first chunk of Russel's Principia Mathematica defines a new logical algebra to be used going forward.

It seems you think that the use of boolean algebra was popularized because of Shanon's application of it to circuitry? Symbolic systems were well-used and well-known before that. For example, Goedel's theorems (1929, 1931) deal explicitly with the symbolic representation of logical statements. And I daresay that the Incompleteness Theorem is something that Borges would have been intensely interested in, since it deals with the finite accessibility of knowledge.

In short, Borges would have chosen Boole because, at that time, it would have been perfectly acceptable to see his work on logic as being similarly foundational to the field of mathematics as that of Descartes (geometry) and Leibniz (calculus).

Godel, Russel, etc didn't really build upon any of Boole's work, though, did they? Other than being influenced by the general idea of applying mathematics to logic. I guess I was wondering how much Boole's work was actually used; but I see your point about it being foundational in the same way Descartes and Leibniz were, even if we don't use their actual work these days.

Random thought - why were truth tables not invented until 1921, 57 years after Boole's death (at least, that's what wikipedia tells me - Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)? Are they really that revolutionary of an idea? are they one of those ideas that is obvious in retrospect but required a genius to discover? Or was no one even really thinking about this until Wittgenstein, or what?

Sorry if my thoughts seem disorganized, I'm just sort of writing down ideas as they come to me.

> in fact, English was his first language, not Spanish

Where did you get this?

I've heard that in a couple of places, it's difficult to track down a specific source. It looks like that particular fact isn't on Wikipedia anymore, although it does say he learned English from a young age.

Source for being raised bilingual "he was not even aware that English and Spanish were separate languages until later in his childhood" (cache) http://cc.bingj.com/cache.aspx?q=borges+first+language&d=498...

Source for English as first langue: http://kirjasto.sci.fi/jlborges.htm

"English practically as a first language" http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/24/borges-had-...

Looks like the truth may be somewhat less strict than what I had remembered. Nonetheless, not only was he an Anglophone, he was also an Anglophile, something most of those sources reinforce.

> But then, just as this story was to be published, to be extra sure, we went to Google Earth, typed in "Agloe" one last time, and, whaddya know? It isn't there any more!

> It was removed this week.

Partially, perhaps.

Start at any old place in GM, and search for "Agloe, NY", and I get Aglow Dermatology and Aglow Decorating Corporation, both in New York City.

BUT, search for "Roscoe, NY", and then search for "Agloe, NY", and it finds the place just fine.

Maybe the removal of the imaginary town hasn't been pushed out to all users yet. Or maybe it's just been given some kind of lower-priority status -- "of local interest only", or something like that.


It may be removed from Google Earth but I don't think Google Maps has gotten the memo.

Just now, it appeared as something like a suburb of Rockland in my search. 'Course it's possible it was re-inserted by Google when their news-searched automatically noted the interest in the place-name.


As far as I can see this "story" is simply a rewriting of Frank Jacbob's blog, which is referred to but rather unsportingly not linked to: http://bigthink.com/strange-maps/643-agloe-the-paper-town-st...

I normally love the NPR but this piece looks like blatant blogspam to me.

Back in 1976, my girlfriend's mother had a friend who worked for a map company and was a graduate of the University of Michigan. The company made very popular maps, everyone had one in their car.

Ohio State University, near Columbus, was the nemesis and rival of UofM. So this mapmaker stuck a couple of short texts accompanying two roads near Columbus. One said 'mgoblu' and the other 'beatosu'. They were pretty hard to find unless you knew where to look.

But his bosses found out eventually and fired him. Haha.

Agloe is a better story.

There's a Wikipedia article on this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatosu_and_Goblu

I think it's mildly interesting how these two fake towns were in the once-disputed border region that involved an armed conflict between Ohio and Michigan:


An example of sports rivalry subsuming more deadly fighting instincts?

OMG. I wonder if her comment about the dude losing his job was true.

My favorite perk, from any job I've had, was being allowed to insert a POI[0] into the USGEO[1] dataset before MapPoint 2000 shipped. The tradition lived on for a couple releases before it got canned.

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Point_of_interest

[1] USGEO owned the data underneath two shipping products, MapPoint and Streets and Trips, as well as several online products.

You have bits and pieces of the real story. It was the chairman of the Michigan State Highway Commission. http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2012/11/rivalry_week_how...

This has been going on for a long time. When I was in high school, in an English class unit on journalism, I learned how the United Press caught the competing Hearst news organization faking stories about the eastern front in World War I. The United Press reporters inserted details about a Russian government official named Nelotsky in their news stories, and watched the statements about Nelotsky get copied into reports from the competing wire service. There was just one problem with the Hearst plagiarists' journalistic procedure: there wasn't any such Russian official. The name "Nelotsky" came from reversing the spelling of the English word "stolen" and adding a Russian-looking "ky" ending.


Similarly, in the 1990s I noticed that a popular page on my personal website was being copied diligently by a college student for his personal website. I inserted a fake entry, based on the Greek word for "steal." I also put a link at that entry leading to the copyright notice page on my personal website, which has a distinctive filename unique to my site. When the student copied the page again, I was able to show the site administrator at the university that hosted his site that the student had plainly violated the site user agreement at that academic institution, which specifically required students not to plagiarize for their postings on the university site.

I didn't do a lot of public outing of that student--but you had better believe I still remember who he was. Teachers do well to teach students early and often to use their own noggins and to do their own writing, giving proper credit with correct citation form to sources they rely on. That's a better education than just letting students copy whatever they happen to see, without any analysis or thought at all.

Apple was involved in a similar 'honey pot' case in the 1980s [1], only with computer code instead of place names on a map.

(The description below is from memory; I can't find the court opinions on-line, and I think the honey pot was discussed only in the trial court's opinion, not on appeal.)

Back in the day, Franklin Computer Corp. made a clone of the Apple ][. Franklin claimed to have used a clean room [2] to develop its own ROM and OS, without copying Apple's code.

Apple disassembled the Franklin executable --- and they knew exactly what they were looking for: One of the Apple programmers had created a no-op variable and set its value to be his own name. (He didn't just put his name into a comment in the source code, because of course that would have been stripped out during the build process and wouldn't have made it into the executable code.)

So guess what Apple found in the Franklin code .... That's right: The Apple programmer's name in the no-op variable.

Franklin then changed its position and admitted that they'd copied Apple's code, but claimed (unsuccessfully) that doing so was not infringement.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Computer,_Inc._v._Frankli.... [Note: The period in the URL might mess things up when you click on the link.]

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clean_room_design

The story continues: after that court case, Apple added a special, obfuscated 'stolen from Apple' icon to the firmware, in case they ever had to go to court over something like this again. http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?story=Stolen_From_Apple...

In Germany there's Bielefeld, a major city that, depending on your opinion, does or doesn't actually exist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bielefeld_Conspiracy

Then of course there's also the Republic of Null Island http://www.nullisland.com

Hey, I'm part of the conspiracy: I've been to Bielefeld many times! :D

(There's a biannual pen&paper roleplaying convention there.)

How can you be sure it was really Bielefeld?

Technology has progressed to the point where these sort of pranks are harder to pull off. see: https://www.tineye.com/search/1f3e80b2699c7e8b8542883aefaab1... for null island and Google street view for Bielefeld.

Heh. Along similar lines I predict there will eventually be a teapot in orbit around Mars, placed there by philosophical pranksters.

John Green wrote a book[0] about this town. It's a great book, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who likes adolescent fiction. I believe it's currently being made into a movie.

[0] http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001ANSS5K?btkr=1

Interesting comment:

"I am a travel writer. I was once speaking to a guidebook writer in Thailand who told me under pressure to hit a deadline he wrote a review for a guidebook for a German restaurant, though he had not eaten there. He fabricated a venison dish, describing the sauce in detail. A couple of years later, feeling badly about his fiction, he visited the restaurant. The dish was on the menu and the chef explained so many people came in asking for it he eventually had to add it."

Hmm.. sounds like a case of, "I know a guy who... did something I'm not willing to admit I did myself".

"AITCHANDAR ROAD, Ryde - previously Folly Road. The initials of Higginbotham and Robinson, a local publishing Company. Believing its maps were being pirated by an opposition publisher, and in order to prove this, they gave the then unnamed street a false name based on their initials, ie H-AND-R. They were proved correct when opposition maps were published showing "Aitchandar Road"."

Funny how reality becomes what people make it to be


Wikipedia article on the general case: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fictitious_entry

Specific example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trap_street

I recall working with a very detailed map of Germany a long time ago and seeing two nearby towns named something like "Herman" and "Munsterville". Years later I tried to find them again on a different map and failed. I often wondered if they were inserted as a joke by a mapmaker.

Map makers do sometimes put fake things (like little roads) that don't exist on their maps, to hopefully be able to spot third parties copying their data to make and sell their own maps.

This "town" is in no less than the USGS's Geographic Names Information System (GNIS):


Added in 2014!


Umberto Eco would enjoy this. Fiction becoming reality is his favourite topic.

Does this mean google maps is using ripped off IP?

Such fictitious places appear in all derived (and original) maps, and is not by itself an indication of ripping off - it's only used as evidence when someone claims that their map is not copied. It will also show up for everyone who has legitimately acquired the map data.

In particulal, the original article mentions an acquisition path how most likely that map has made it's way legally to google.

No. At some point it became a real place name. Whether it is still interesting to show it on a map is another question.

In the case of the unnamed road it kind of makes sense. They named it, the name stuck. It's only fair, I think.

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