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The Straight Dope

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Why do the digital alarm clocks advertised in catalogs or magazines always show 12:08? What's so special about that time? I'm desperate for an answer! --Oliver "Mr. Cc" Markwirth, Richardson, Texas

Now stop that. They don't all say 12:08. I have an ad here showing a whole passel of digital watches set for 8:07. It was sent to me by some character who wrote in the margin, "Signals of THE 4 HORSES OF THE APOCALYPSE??? Note all set at 8:07." (It's "four horsemen," incidentally, but you know how panic fogs the mind.) If I were an ad agency art director I'd be scared to death--you whimsically set all the watches in an ad to, say, your high school locker number, and by sundown you've got every paranoid in the country thinking it's a plot by the Trilateral Commission. A casual survey of ads and catalogs suggests the time settings on digital watches are random except when they're mixed in with watches with hands, in which case they're all set for 10:10. Why? Shoe size of the Antichrist, I reckon. (He's a big 'un.) Now go away and let me figure out why you put cargoes in ships and shipments in cars.

EVERYONE KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE

I thought you'd like to know a little more about the often- discussed but never officially acknowledged practice of putting copyright traps on commercial maps [August 16]. The closest I've ever come to finding such a trap is the fictional town of Westdale, which appears on the 1982 Rand McNally Road Atlas map of metro Chicago. By 1986 it had disappeared.

I also enclose some illustrations from Mark Monmonier's book How to Lie With Maps, which show some phony towns added to a map of Ohio as a prank. --Dennis McClendon, Chicago

It happened to Brigadoon, why not Westdale? Although I have to say the industrial suburbs west of Chicago seem like an unpromising locale for an enchanted vanishing village. Actually, the folks at Rand McNally claim it was all an honest mistake. A real estate developer submitted a plan for a community called Westdale that was approved but never built. Somehow this found its way into the Rand McNally road atlas and years went by before anybody noticed.

This story is slightly fishy; the area in question, though unincorporated, was built up decades ago. But a Rand McNally spokesman reasonably inquires, "Why would we put in copyright traps and then not tell anybody they were there?" If one assumes the main value of traps is deterrence, good question.

Errors of this sort apparently happen fairly often. In his book Mark Monmonier shows several "paper streets"--planned but not built--on an official map of Syracuse, New York. Serves the town fathers right for believing real estate developers. If one tells you the sun rises in the east, you'd be smart to get a second opinion.

Of course, when it comes to map errors, you can't overlook the possibility of a little good-natured sabotage. Monmonier mentions two prank towns appearing in an official map of Michigan, the edge of which showed portions of the neighboring state of Ohio. Some die-hard Wolverine fan in the mapmaking department decided that would be a good place to put the nonexistent towns of "Goblu" (Go Blue, get it?) and "Beatosu" (referring to the University of Michigan's traditional rival Ohio State). If you had to spend all day staring at squiggly lines and benday dots, you'd need some way to let off steam, too.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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