Apparently there is now a sprawling metropolis in northwestern North Dakota, or… something

As any regular reader of this irregularly-updated blog knows, I love maps. That I didn’t become a cartographer is mainly a result of the times in which we live, although given the tech geekery of GIS, it’s still not a convincing explanation.

Anyway, as a map lover, I geeked out today when The Atlantic Wire had a post about new nighttime satellite imagery released by NASA, including this amazing “map” of the US, with its major metropolitan areas aglow with artificial luminescence.

Knowing the US map as well as I do, I was immediately able to pick out most of the major cities. Starting with my home in Minneapolis, I proceeded to identify Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha, Kansas City, etc.

And that’s when it hit me. I know there’s no major US metropolitan area between Minneapolis and Seattle. So… what is that huge glowing area in what appears to be northwestern North Dakota? I wondered. Atlantic Wire’s Dashiell Bennett wondered the same thing, and came to the same conclusion as I did:

One thing that sticks out for us is the surprisingly large bright spot in what appears to be an otherwise dark North Dakota. Could that be the state’s exploding oil industry working overtime?

I’ve created an animated GIF illustrating the situation. Using the NASA photo published on the Atlantic Wire post, I overlaid a map outlining the state boundaries, dropped in markers for some recognizable cities in the western US and Canada, and then… that big weird area in North Dakota.

I decided to take a closer look at just what is around that huge glowing area in North Dakota. I zoomed the satellite photo and overlaid it on another map outlining counties and rivers in North Dakota to try to make sense of it. Surely North Dakota’s population centers must be near all of that light, right?

Not so.

At this level of zoom, on Google Maps, only four towns in the entire western half of the state are populous enough to be identified: Williston, Minot, Dickinson and Bismarck. And of those four, only Williston (population 14,716, according to the 2010 census) is in the glowing area.

So… yeah. This light is not coming from a city. At least, not a well-planned, livable city densely populated with humans. I’m no expert on the topic, but I am well aware of North Dakota’s current shale oil boom and the controversies of the hydraulic fracking techniques that must be used to extract it from the earth. It’s just kind of interesting, I think, to see yet another consequence of fracking: light pollution.

For further reading… well, just Google “Williston fracking”.

OK, this is totally awesome

Even worthy of resurrecting that ’80s superlative. I’ve just learned, from Daring Fireball of course, that is now working with its suppliers to begin transitioning to “frustration-free” packaging.

What is “frustration-free” packaging, you ask? It’s toys, electronics and other goods that, over the past couple of decades, have come to be sold almost exclusively in non-recyclable, hard-to-open, excessively-bound-up packaging, placed instead in a simple recyclable cardboard box, such that all parts can be opened by hand without any special tools. Hallelujah! As a parent who’s grown accustomed to spending much of Christmas and birthdays stabbing at unnecessary packaging with a Swiss Army knife trying to emancipate the toys within, this speaks right to my bitter frustration.

It’s better for the planet, too.

It’s going to be a gradual transition, but Amazon’s goal is to get all of their packaged products into this type of packaging over the next few years. Much like Walmart, they’re using their clout to get their suppliers to change their ways. But rather than simply cutting costs at all costs, as with Walmart, Amazon is actually doing something that will turn into a tremendous service for their customers and for the environment.

As if Amazon weren’t already the obvious choice for Christmas gift buying, now there’s almost no reason to go anywhere else!