More than four millennia before the personal computer was a gleam in anyone's eye, Babylonians were scratching crude maps on clay. Maybe that explains why cartographers make better maps than computers do. There's something to be said for a 4,000-year head start.
Lately, though, several software companies have released CD-ROM atlases that push the envelope of the technology. Is it time to buy a computer map? To find out, I looked at five programs with my favorite map expert, Steve, who loves to pore over the cartographer's art.
First, don't expect any miracles. Computer maps are not quite as rich and detailed as the best paper maps. Zoom in on, say, Algeria in the program "Small Blue Planet: The Real Picture World Atlas" and only the capital and boundaries are identified.
What makes these maps enticing is that they can do things paper maps can't. "Small Blue Planet" displays photographs and maps made through various imaging techniques, including a striking map of Chernobyl. The Windows-based program even shows users whether it will be night or day at a given time and day any place in the world.
The resolution is somewhat better in the "National Geographic CD-ROM Picture Atlas of the World." And the software takes advantage of CD-ROM technology, packing in a wealth of pictures and video clips and a decent search tool for finding countries, cities, and major geographical features. It runs on Windows and Macintosh machines.
The problem with "Picture Atlas" is that its essays have the flat, feel-good tone of a junior-high geography text. Worse, it glosses over historical catastrophes. The only mention of Germany's role in World War II is a reference to the location of Dachau concentration camp. Click on "concentration camp" and we learn it is a place "where prisoners of war, refugees, or political prisoners are detained and sometimes subjected to physical or mental abuse."
Abuse? That pales compared with what really happened.
More impressive, if less entertaining, is "Maps N' Facts," which combines a vast amount of statistical information with reasonably good resolution. The maps show not only all major cities, but some minor towns, as well as major forests, mountains, and rivers. It is one of the few maps where detail improves, rather than degrades, as users zoom in.
Statistically, the program is first-rate. Within any search, say, for the proportion of males between ages 20 and 29, you can rank all countries, the countries of a given region, or a list of any specific countries you choose. The program also ranks rivers by length, lakes by surface area, and cities by population, among many others. You can copy portions of maps to other documents, such as school reports, which makes Maps N' Facts great for students with Macintosh or Windows 3.1 machines.
Windows 95 users, however, should get the "Microsoft Encarta '96 World Atlas." It is superior to any other CD-ROM atlas commonly available in the United States, combining an easy-to-navigate interface with a wonderful zoom capability that shows even the smallest towns. Its candid appraisals of a country's history, culture, and character are so thoughtful that it is rewarding to read about even places one knows well. Besides all this, it has some gorgeous pictures and brilliant musical recordings (try the Chicago blues clip).
The Microsoft atlas has some quirks. Bethune, a mid-sized town in the north of France, is omitted even though much smaller places around it are included. Nashville, Ind., inexplicably ends up about 70 miles northeast of its actual location.
But these are quibbles in an otherwise excellent program. Those 4,000-year head starts aren't what they used to be.
*Send comments via Internet (firstname.lastname@example.org) or to CompuServe (70541,3654) or America Online (LBELSIE).