Archive for the ‘ Personal ’ Category

Tell me a story! (Visualizations)

I really admire and respect people who can quickly and succinctly tell a story with a visualization of data. These folks are able to deliver something that has a good “signal to noise ratio.” Here’s a short post describing 3 visualizations that I think are really effective. One of them you’ll recognize as a classic if you read Tufte, and the last one might surprise you…

1. French Invasion of Russia

Alright, this is the grand-father of visualizations (Fig.1). Having studied Model United Nations goofed off in high school instead of studying European History, I walked through life with terrible knowledge gaps pre-Wikipedia but I understand the campaign was a failure.

This visualization really tells the story. Once you understand the legend, it tells an effective narrative about just how terrible was the campaign, the aftermath of major battles and the brutal winter. Perhaps the best illustration I’ve seen of the terrible cost of war by attrition (Side note: Do never invade Russia).

Fig.1) Charles Minard's information graphic of Napoleon's march. Hover over it to read the translated Legend text

2. Japan Earthquakes leading up to 11-Mar 2011

The format of my next example  (Fig. 2) is video. I like this presentation because it communicates effectively the concept that seismic activity is dynamic; over time, in physical space, duration, intensity and frequency. All of these are displayed brilliantly in a time-lapse depiction of the Japanese part of the Pacific tectonic plate. The opening “key” or legend is useful, though very Japanese in its spurious accuracy. If you have a short attention span, skip to 01:52 to see the actual earthquake(s) and turn up the sound because it uses sound to measure intensity as well. Brilliant!

Fig.2) Japan earthquakes 2011 Visualization map (2012-01-01)

3. The Vietnam War Memorial (Washington, D.C.)

Fig.3) Vietnam War Memorial original design submission by Maya Lin

The format of this last example (Fig. 3) is a stone memorial. But static it ain’t. It’s actually dynamic when you account for foot traffic.

Read on:

I was awestruck when I first visited this on a school trip to D.C.  At first the concept seems really simple: It’s an angled series of granite slabs, engraved with names. About 58,000  of them. What a powerful message delivered with beautiful simplicity. I think I heard someone else discuss the design of the memorial this way, so I am plagar-phrasing but I do not remember whom to give credit. I’ll use this quote thingy instead:

The memorial is experienced up close. You arrive at one of the ends, and the names start appearing at your feet. You descend slowly into a recessed area and the wall grows in height. Soon you are literally in over your head and the names keep flowing as you walk by. You reach the apex (trough?) and as you walk out, the wall’s height gradually diminishes — exactly how the US entered and exited the conflict (Fig. 4)


Holy cow! Just writing that elicits an echo of the emotion I felt when I visited: It’s visceral. Amazing. And so very simple in its execution.

Fig. 4) The Memorial design maps to the rate of US casualties over time

TL;DL War is hell. Japan should move. Steppe to Russia and they will knock you out.

The pages underneath

In an undergraduate English Lit class, selected simply because I needed to satisfy a graduation requirement, I learned a new word. Palimpsest. I liked that word immediately.

First of all, Palimpsest has a nice ring to it. It makes you take notice. But the main reason this word sticks with me is thanks to a most eloquent definition provided by our instructor, a graduate student in English Lit. I paraphrased (poorly) her eloquence in this quote thingy:

Imagine a notepad with sheets of paper. As you start anew on one page, sometimes the words written on the previous page are visible as indentations. In fact, if you rubbed a pencil over the indentations, you can reproduce the original text but with varying quality. Like memory.

I like to think that the things we experience daily in our lives are like pages torn from a big notepad. The really memorable lessons are visible long after. In fact I’d argue that our own Palimpsests define us: Important lessons learned, meaningful experiences, highlights and (unfortunately for us all) failures.

There are really practical applications of a palimpsest too. NOVA devoted a special on a recovered text from Archimedes, considered one of the earliest examples of the great mathematician’s work.

Writing about Palimpsests is tricky: They may only have meaning to the original author, as “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski learned when playing detective (fig 2).

So I’ll try to keep my entries universally relevant. And Rated PG. Mostly.

Jackie Treehorn writes a mysterious note

Fig. 1) A mysterious note. . .

An obscene palimpsest

Fig. 2 ) "The Dude" discovers the contents of the mysterious note.