Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman


Have you got a letter for me? Well, if I do, I can only get it to you if you have a proper address…

Sometimes the technicalities of addressing, geocoding as we call it in my profession, have earth-shaking consequences. If you don’t quite know where your target is, you might deliver the package to the wrong house. That’s what happened in Belgrade in 1999 when the NATO forces bombed the Chinese embassy instead of the intended Yugoslav military installation. Ooops! That one took a while to smooth over, too. Read the excerpt below, or read all about it here:

The officer, who wrongly assumed Belgrade’s street addresses were numbered as uniformly as, say, Manhattan’s, ended up targeting the Chinese Embassy, which is on a frontage road nearly 1,000 feet from the supply directorate that was the intended target, the officials said.

Ah, maps in the news. Lines in the sand, between Kuwait and Iraq: Where is that line? An Italian lawsuit against the US Air Force hinges on whether maps the pilot used showed the ski lift cables that his plane sliced through, sending people plunging to their deaths.

Here in the land of the grid, addresses are usually pretty logical. As long as you are in a city in the USA, chances are likely that most of it is on the grid plan. (The ‘burbs are another matter.) Manhattan is only the most well known of these orthogonal street plans – this one is from Philadelphia.


Not all cities in the world have such well ordered postal address systems. Slums, shantytowns, favelas…don’t, and lots of people live there. Japanese cities do not have regular numerical addresses either. Postmen must memorize the sequence of addresses in their entire route – they follow no clear or logical order. How does one give directions – by landmark, I guess. A colleague of mine wonders whether this lack of coherent addressing was a factor in the Japanese push to innovate with “location technology,” the tools that put GPS in your phone, link your phone to GoogleMaps, give you maps of the nearest shops on your phone while you drive in your GPS-directed car.

I wonder, do they have a huge junk mail marketing industry (the polite term is direct mail marketing) in Japan? How can they? It depends on drawing up lists of addresses by areas that are designated on a map. Now it’s all done with computers, GIS (my gig), but it used to be done with paper lists. They must have to compile, by hand, all the addresses that are in a given area! In New York, even before computers, a bit of research would give you the low and high numbers on streets in your area, and you could fill in the rest-even on one side, odd on the other.

As property tax maps have been an instrument critical to the growth of the central state’s power (William the Conquerer did a property survey, pronto, after taking over England. It’s called the DomesdayBook of 1086) the regular postal address sytem has been crucial to the growth of consumerism. Makes shipping the stuff easier, and makes shipping that junk mail easy as can be! We know where you are!

2 Responses to Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Tackett

  2. […] lichanos wrote an interesting post today on Wait a Minute, Mr. PostmanHere’s a quick excerptAh, maps in the news. Lines in the sand, between Kuwait and Iraq: Where is that line? AnItalian lawsuit against the US Air Force hinges on whether maps the pilot used showed the ski lift cables that his plane slice through, … […]

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