Tag Archives: data visualisation

Things August 2017: Archive Adventures – part 2

Last time I shared the first half of the exciting archive of historic unused Things. In this second half, I’ll cover music, games, writing, and some data visualisation. Enjoy!


I was collecting examples of music where I felt the production process was the main contributor to the quality of the song (rather than the songwriting or performance), examples being Britney Spears – Toxic, Mark Ronson – God Put a Smile on Your Face, and the Space Channel 5 theme tune. Then I wondered if actually I just like crisp brass and distorted orchestral sounds, and have no ear for production at all, so wasn’t sure whether I could meaningfully comment. But listen to those songs as a set and see what you think!

Putting a record of important sounds from earth in a spacecraft and shooting it out of the solar system is pretty speculative (although I’d argue we don’t know enough about the parameters in the Drake equation or the full potential of technology in this universe to know just how speculative) – but is also a profoundly optimistic and beautiful act, so I’m really glad we did it.

Some trivia that hilariously undermines the beauty of the gesture: EMI refused permission for The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” to be included; and the engravings showing what humans look like (naked) were actually censored and therefore inaccurate.

Copyright issues have always made it challenging to listen to the full Voyager track listing on earth, but the copyright-subverting hydra that is YouTube solves this problem, and I highly recommend making time to appreciate the playlist.

And this just in, with a title that sets expectations perfectly, another candidate for music-to-share-with-the-galaxy: Duel of the Fates on Trombones


I previously wrote about game-maker Jason Rohrer in Things 121 (specifically on Chain World, a game intended to become a religion). In 2014 he released The Castle Doctrine, a game about gun-ownership through the medium of PvP house-security design and burglary. Players design a secure ‘house’, with the restriction that it must be possible to break into without tools; they then try to break into other player’s houses to steal loot, and then store that loot in their own house and hope their design keeps other thieves out. Total loot owned is public, so a nice feedback loop emerges where a more successful player will attract more burglary attempts.

The challenge for such a game design is you need to come up with creative opportunities and restrictions that will emergently lead to players creating a huge range of fascinating house-designs. I particularly enjoyed the systems-design reasoning at work in Rohrer’s post on some of the design changes he had to make in response to players converging on clever (but boring) solutions.

In mobile games, the mind-bogglingly successful Clash of Clans (and its many clones) operates on a similar basis with (very) light real-time-strategy gameplay, but the strategic variety seems ultimately quite weak. I’m more impressed by King of Thieves, also operating on the same idea but with single-screen platformer gameplay. It’s free, so if that sounds at all interesting you should check it out (on iOS and Android). Unfortunately the late-game becomes about pixel-perfect jump timing which is a bit less fun.


I can’t remember what I was thinking when I added this link, but perhaps that in itself is telling: Kottke’s extract from an Adam Phillips interview, “The need not to know yourself“.

I suspect that procrastination is a challenge for a large number of people, and found that Quora has a collection of highly upvoted answers. I personally found the best approach is a mixed strategy: trying lots of things in sequence. So this is a good place to go to find lots of ideas.

Writing, Data Visualisation, Everything Else

A good long read is, these days, the closest I get to the escapism of a good novel: a chance to inhabit and explore another world-view. If you’re the same, you’ll probably enjoy this long article on novels, tragedy, comedy, and religion on two levels. Sample quotes:

“the invention of the novel privatised myth, because the novel, invented after Aristotle, did not have a holy book. The novelist was on his own. Sometimes he’s even a she. There were no rules.”

“As they became professional, writers began to write about writers. As they became academicised, writers began to write about writing.”

“You may think that to praise The Simpsons at the expense of Henry James makes me a barbarian. Well, it does, but I’m a very cultured barbarian. The literary novel has gone late Roman. It needs the barbarians.”

There was an article about a trend online to use “?” where formal writing used a hyphen, for example:

“The greatest pleasure of all – the categorisation of minutiae.”
“The greatest pleasure of all? The categorisation of minutiae.”

I felt that captured something I’d seen and been annoyed by, and figured I would collect some examples. I guess shortly after that I just started to accept it and didn’t collect anything, and then couldn’t find the original link, leaving this a bit of a non-thing. Although I think the fact I abandoned it is at least somewhat interesting.

Unremembered by present me, and unexplained by past me, the Things archive includes a link to the Tableau product support page.

Here are some fascinating maps on the distribution of blood types.

And finally, a superb example of giving insight into long-term trends using well-designed data visualisation: The Great Prosperity (1947-79) and The Great Regression (1980-2009)

(Click for full version)

- Transmission finally ends

Things 123: Game weekends, Puffins, Lilith, Abstract Animated GIFs

Events - Sandpit this very weekend (25th August), Weekender later (Fri 14th-Sun 16th September)
Hide & Seek are running one of their curated ‘Sandpit’ game events, taking place on Saturday and Sunday afternoons this weekend (25th and 26th August), unusually but awesomely located at the Natural History Museum. NHM page is here; a longer article about what’s happening can be found on Wired.

Then, from Friday 14th through to Sunday 16th September is Hide & Seek’s Weekender (facebook event here), mostly in the Clore Ballroom in that Royal Festival Hall place, this being as usual a whole festival of games, largely drawn from Sandpit events from the last two years.

This happens to include Competitive Sandwich Making on the Friday, which Clare and I will be running (here’s what happened last year when we ran first), this time featuring a secret rank beyond Earl of Sandwich, if people are competitive enough to discover it. There’s also lots of other amazing things happening, including two of my favourites: Die Gute Fabrik’s Johann Sebastien Joust and Viviane Schwarz’s Treasure Maze.

Tim Link - You’re In A Room
I finally wrote up the game Clare and I made for a more recent Sandpit: You’re In A Room, a sort of Whose Line Is It Anyway version of Knightmare; you can find out what on earth that means here.

Video – Puffin Webcam
In the exciting new world of putting webcam streams onto my TV for background entertainment, now that the Miranda’s Kittens feed is no longer live, I’ve had to find something else. It turns out there’s a whole range of great feeds available on explore.org, including a puffin cam.

Bonus videovia Clare while I was writing this
Dog swims with dolphins!

I recently wondered what really is the deal with the biblical (or is she?) character of Lilith, so I turned to Wikipedia on the subject, and found it fascinating – here’s just the section headings to give you an idea of the span of cultural records she appears in:

Mesopotamian mythology
Siegmund Hurwitz
In the Bible
Jewish tradition
Greco-Roman mythology
Arabic mythology
In Western literature
In modern occultism

The highlight for me was discovering that Lilith only appears once in the bible, and even then arguably so, in Isiah 34:

(13) [Edom] shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches. (14) Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest. (15) There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate. (16) Look in the book of the LORD and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the LORD has ordered it, and His spirit shall gather them there.

This makes “lilith” (in the bible at least) a hapax legomenon, a word only occurring once in the source and therefore challenging to decipher – given only this context, is she a demon, or just some kind of regular animal with sinister associations?

I also recommend reading this translation of Isiah 34 in full (it’s only ~400 words), as it’s use of hyperbole puts our modern tabloid newspapers and comment trolls to shame.

Pictures – Abstract Animated GIFs
I’ve seen some interesting abstract animated GIFs floating around the internet, and tracked them down to two artists: David Ope, and Mr Div. Here’s one example of each, and do click through to view the rest of their work:

David Ope:

Mr Div:

Puzzle - The shrinking empires
Here’s an unfortunately small version of a fascinating visualisation of world history (which we bought as a poster for the office from Stanfords, although they don’t seem to have them any more), with time running from left to right, and rough location on earth from top to bottom, with identifiable countries/kingdoms/empires marked out:

You can just about see the Roman Empire as a big blob of orange in the middle, the Ottoman Empire in blue towards the right, and the British Empire stretching wide in patches of red before retreating back home by the time we reach the right-hand side representing the present day.

Even at this scale, one pattern is apparent: they just don’t make empires as big as they used to. The closer we get to the present day, the smaller the tribal groups become. Why is this?

Things 109: Jonathan’s Card, Dr Who Cats, Mix Shift Visualisation

Question – Nothing to Hide
As technology makes surveillance of many kinds ever easier, some people  are worried about Big Brother, two words which conveniently encompass the general idea that this would be bad, via Orwell’s 1984, which incidentally is one of those classics that you really should read if you haven’t yet as it is only becoming more relevant.

In response to this, others say “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear,” which is powerfully concise rebuttal to these vague fears.

I can think of some counterarguments to that, but they tend to be long, and as noted by The Brads, something that takes more than 140 characters to explain doesn’t generally spread. So: this week’s challenge is to come up with a counterargument for “nothing to hide” that is 140 characters long or fewer.

A while ago, as an experiment, Jonathan Stark made his Starbucks card details public, so anyone could add credit and anyone could spend that credit. His page explaining this is here. (Note the caveat at the top – this no longer works).

Sam Odio found an easy way to transfer credit to his own Starbucks card, and I recommend reading his take on the idea (and his exploit) here.

If you don’t have time for that, you could just read this summary of the whole story over at Good, which lays out the whole strange tale.

Les Dawson:

“There is a remote tribe that worships the number zero. Is nothing sacred?”

Picture (via Jason)
Pure internet linkbait, but with an execution this good, it deserves to be: Dr Who cats.

Previous Puzzle
Last time I asked for ways to visualise data in such a way that mix shifts affecting conversion rate would be readily apparent.

Adam naturally had a full consultant’s answer, explaining how he would show the data different ways depending on the audience (sales director, website content manager, SEO manager…), and how he might talk through the component parts of the change in a sequence of slides, which is all very sensible. However, what I really want is something that I as an analyst can look at to apprehend the whole situation, ideally in a generic way, so any given shift becomes clear.

Simon described an interesting single-view answer, but in preparing this post I realised I needed to confirm some of its details with him, so that will have to wait for a later edition of Things.

On to my answer… the data set was as follows:

[before mix shift | after mix shift]:

Banjo section visits [10,000 | 20,000] – lots more traffic
Banjo section sales [100 | 220]
Banjo section conversion [1.0% | 1.1%] – conversion increases!

Gun section visits [1,000 | 1,000] – same traffic as ever
Gun section sales [100 | 110]
Gun section conversion [10% | 11%] – conversion increases!

Overall conversion before:
(100 + 100) / (10,000 + 1,000) = 1.82%
Overall conversion after:
(220 + 110) / (20,000 + 1,000) = 1.57% – overall conversion has decreased!

My solution looks like this:

This shows how the total visits and orders (black lines) are composed of the individual sections (red/gun and blue/banjo). While both the blue and red arrows get steeper (representing improved conversion, although it’s hard to see this on the red arrow), the angle of the black line decreases (representing the overall decrease in conversion), since the blue arrow became so much longer.

This pretty much works for the extreme example given. However, it has significant weaknesses as a general solution:

  • It doesn’t work as a trended view – conceivably it could be animated, but that seems like overkill
  • It’s hard to compare the angle of arrows when traffic changes significantly, as in the gun section above
  • It tends to encode all the interesting information into a narrow diagonal band of the chart.

Further improvements are of course welcome!

-Transmission Ends

Things 94: Black Swan, Vampire Squid, Stock Market Returns

I saw Black Swan recently and recommend it to anyone that likes the look of the trailer, so long as you’re not squeamish as that’s a whole side of the movie the trailer skims over:


With a reported production budget of $13m (which, as I never tire of telling people, would be just enough to cover Tron Legacy’s costume budget, and was also so restrictive that Natalie Portman opted to forego her trailer in order to afford an on-set medic), I was particularly fascinated by the beautifully subtle (and some not-so-subtle) digital effects they nonetheless managed to achieve. Most excellently, you can see a showreel of how these effects were put together on Look Effects’ website, although if you haven’t seen the film you should steer well clear as it will completely ruin the film for you.

Have Instapaper or Read It Later at the ready because I’m about to flag up some serious long-form content. I don’t think it was available online when it was first published, but you can now read Matt Taibbi’s dilligently researched yet seething explanation of quite what Goldman Sachs does over at Rolling Stone, in which he memorably begins:

The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

Over a year later even publications like The Week will casually refer to them as “Giant vampire squid Goldman Sachs”, which is I think excellent. It’s long, but well worth it, and it has a great twist ending.

As a nice follow-up (or much shorter way of cutting to the heart of the matter), Charlie Stross explains how we got to this point. Or if you want the whole thing in one pithy excerpt:

Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.

I think the way we tend to automatically expect groups of humans to behave like individual humans is one of the most disastrous mistakes we make on a daily basis.

All ovens that I’ve seen have some kind of temperature ‘input’ dial, but why do so few have any kind of readout of the actual internal temperature, to the point that there is a market for independently purchased oven thermometers? Shouldn’t market forces guide the manufacturers to include such a feature themselves?

I see a lot of data visualisations that make me angry because they do little more than treat data as almost random input for some kind of procedural image generation process (which is actually very cool when it doesn’t claim to be something it isn’t). This New York Times visualisation of stock market returns over the past 90 years, on the other hand, is actually quite practical at giving you both an overall sense of the patterns while still making each data point quite clear.

I'd just like to make it clear that I'm using the 'ragged edge' functionality of FS capture to show that this is only part of the image. A while ago, when everyone at work had just got in to FS Capture, it was used on just about every image you saw. Those were dark days.

Last Week’s Puzzle
Last week I asked why we seem to be so intolerant of variation in things like driving speed or grammar pedantry.

Angela suggests it’s all to do with herd instinct:

We are constantly (often subconsciously) comparing ourselves with others around us and balancing the desire to fit in (be part of the herd) with our desire to ‘self-express’ (stand out). Even small differences between us and others in the herd could potentially threaten us if they lead us to be ostracised or confer upon others some advantage in terms of survival or reproduction. I think that’s one of the reasons we a) notice and b) are so perturbed by even slight differences – they could signify a real risk to our deepest interests.

I think that’s part of the answer, although it doesn’t explain why we’re more tolerant of a lot of other things, or at least tolerant of variation in one direction (such as how we judge others’ use of free time).

I initially thought it covered those particular areas of life because we recognise them as prisoner’s dilemma / tragedy-of-the-commons areas, where a few people taking the easy way risk leading society to a collectively suboptimal Nash equilibrium.

However, I now think there’s two separate factors at work. In driving, even slight differences in speed add up to one car overtaking another, which we can’t help but read as a social signal that one is ‘doing it wrong’ (and we see the same thing with walking speed).

On the other hand, things like specific bits of grammar pedantry or household hygiene fall into a category of behaviours drummed into us as children, which we then cling on to tenaciously through a combination of Anchoring and Status Quo Bias. Deviation from these things is more on a sub-task basis (“I can’t believe they don’t clean their skirting boards!”) rather than a spectrum, as we adhere to whichever specific rules we were taught.