Tag Archives: visualisation

Things 116: Cloud Phase Time-Lapse, 3D Map, Better Tube Map

Point a camera at the sky, create a time lapse video of the clouds. Do the same thing every day of the year. Play back all the videos simultaneously in a grid. Voilà: a kind of phase-diagram visualisation, with seconds representing minutes and space representing seasons. Brilliant.

More detail here. Via Data Pointed.

This is apparently pretty old, and with Google Earth and Street View already taken for granted it’s difficult to appreciate how impressive this is: in-browser 3D maps of major cities by Nokia. A plugin is required, and the sad thing is that I imagine that small barrier is enough to vastly reduce the number of people that will actually try it out.

Various incarnations of the London tube map regularly feature in Things: in the past I’ve posted about a to-scale tube map, a curvy tube map, and a travel-time interactive tube map.

Unsurprisingly, I rather like Mark Noad’s version, which is an ambitious attempt to make a tube map that is not just interestingly different but actually better than the current canonical version. By retaining the simplicity of design but improving geographic accuracy, I would say it succeeds.

This week, a very first world problem. If voice recognition software fails to understand something you say (e.g. Google voice search, xBox 360 Kinect voice commands, or Siri), what do you do? Having had this happen a few times now, I’m very aware that the natural human response of just saying the same thing but louder might not actually be the best thing to do. (I also imagine my neighbours don’t need to hear me shouting “Xbox go back! Xbox! Go! Back! Xbox go frickin’ back! Fine, don’t then!”)

For example, other approaches to ensure your input is recognised could include: reduce background noise; enunciate more clearly; speak in a monotone; move closer to or further away from the microphone; use a different phrasing; or attempt to put on an American accent.

Which of these is most likely to work? Is there a better approach that I’ve not included here? Is just speaking loudly actually the best approach after all?

Or is the failure rate of voice recognition inevitable and unacceptable in most contexts, and the whole notion flawed from the outset?


Things 63: Avalanche, The Universe, Russian Ablum Covers

(Originally sent December 2009, maybe)

This is what it looks like to cause an avalanche, get buried in it, struggle to breathe for four long minutes, and then get dug out. Now that’s what I call reality television.

An awesome bit of flash to help you comprehend the scale of everything in the universe. I recommend zooming out by scrolling to the right, then slowly zooming in all the way to the left, in order to really comprehend the insane smallness of the Planck length:

From the transparently sourced Twitter account @ShitMyDadSays:

“It’s never the right time to have kids, but it’s always the right time for screwing. God’s not a dumbshit. He knows how it works.”

Puzzle Answer
Last week I asked how a day could last 48 hours. It’s not really much of a puzzle because if you can follow the reasoning in the initial statements it’s pretty clear what’s going on. I just thought it was interesting to meditate on!

In a wonderful tribute to cultural differences (and similarities), here’s a great gallery of album covers from Soviet Russia.

Everyone should go and see The Princess and the Frog. Here’s why.

Pixar worked incredibly hard to prove the viability of CG as a storytelling medium, and as a result had a string of huge successes. Meanwhile Disney made some pretty bad 2D animations from 2000-2004 and were making serious losses (failing even to create characters that made for good merchandise). Making a classic confirmation bias correlation/causation error, Disney execs concluded that the public preferred 3D to 2D (when in fact everyone just prefers good films to bad), and officially gave up on it in 2004.

John Lasseter, a driving force behind Pixar’s creative success, became ‘Chief Creative Officer’ for both Pixar and Disney animation when Disney purchased Pixar in 2006. He understood what was happening and reversed the decision. The first real fruit of that realisation is The Princess and the Frog, which has been out for a couple of weeks now.

I highly recommend everyone goes to see it. Not just because it’s a good film (and a superb showcase of the strength of the 2D medium), but as a vote for the very medium itself.

[I later expanded on this argument, with charts, over on Tower of the Octopus – T.M. 8/10/11]

Things 61: Story Analysis Special

(Originally sent October 2009)

Recently I’ve come across a whole bunch of things that could be termed ‘story analysis’ – the appliance of science (or at least pattern-spotting) to the art of the story.

It started when I recently read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, in which he details the stages of the ‘Hero’s journey’ (or ‘monomyth’), an outline that he argues all great myths, legends, fairy tales and religious stories adhere to in one form or another. In terms of telling me a lot of smart stuff about a thing I don’t know much about, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, as it’s given me a fantastically clear lens through which to understand and analyse stories.

Amazon link

Wikipedia link (which is a great way to get most of the idea without reading the book):

As quoted in the Wikipedia article, a criticism of Campbell’s thesis by Donald J. Consentino:

“It is just as important to stress differences as similarities, to avoid creating a (Joseph) Campbell soup of myths that loses all local flavor.”

(Actually it’s clear from reading the book that Campbell positively delights in the local flavour, not to mention the fact that this criticism essentially misses the entire point, but it’s a nice quote anyway).

King of geekery monetisation Randal Monroe of XKCD has created nice diagrams showing character movement in films:


(click to view much larger)

(As with many things he’s done before, it’s something I’ve done at one point myself in a half-interested pencil and paper way, but he takes the idea to its logical conclusion and I fully expect it to appear shortly in his store as a poster, where similar things can be obtained http://store.xkcd.com ) [Yep, there it is. – T.M. 11/9/2011]

In the world of gaming there are additional constraints to storytelling, leading to some amazing homogeneity of story as recently brought to my attention by Simon in the following chart of BioWare game clichés.

Another Link
No coverage of pattern-spotting in stories would be complete without mentioning TV Tropes, a wiki for pretty much exactly that. Some examples:

Slouch Of Villainy

Obviously Evil

Very Special Episode

This Week’s Puzzle – Exceptions that prove the rule
Any attempt to find patterns in stories will encounter exceptions. A frequent response to this is to say “that’s the exception that proves the rule!”, which is a clever way of saying “the thing that proves me wrong actually proves me right, because I say so”. Of course, that’s a wilful misreading of the phrase, but the question naturally arises: how is that phrase supposed to be interpreted and used?

Last week’s puzzle – Showers
Showers are amazingly complicated, with feedback delays, mixing issues and subtle interactions of water pressure all conspiring to make the simple task of achieving a reasonable temperature surprisingly difficult, and I intend to write a blog post with more detail on these different factors at a later date.

Meanwhile, my own solution has been to set the hot water temperature on the boiler and not use the cold tap in the shower at all, thus sidestepping all of these issues.

Things 105: Pervasive Game Event, Monty Hall, American Politics

Upcoming Event, Thursday August 4th
People that like Things are very likely to like this. On Thursday August 4th from 7pm-10pm, Hide & Seek are running a Sandpit gaming event at the Southbank Centre. In practice this means you get to turn up and play lots of interesting games (for adults) for free. Having been to quite a few of these in the past, I highly recommend it as the games are always fascinating and inspiring. I’m particularly excited about this one because Clare and I will be running a game ourselves, one based on the age-old problem of tessellating pieces of cheese to make a perfect sandwich.

More details of the event can be found here, and the official Facebook event is here. Let me know if you think you can make it!

Puzzle – Monty Hall
After talking to some people about last week’s Two Envelopes puzzle, I realised that many Things readers may not be familiar with the Monty Hall Problem, which one should really understand before tackling the Two Envelopes. So I’ll state that here, then go through the answers to both in the following Things.

In the Monty Hall problem, you are in a gameshow presented by the eponymous Monty. You are asked to choose one of three closed doors. Behind one of the doors is a nice car that you apparently want to win. Behind the other two doors are goats. If you choose the door with the car behind it, you win the car. If you choose a door with a goat behind it, I don’t think you win a goat, but you definitely don’t win the car. Basically the goats are there just for comedic effect.

So you choose a door, pretty much at random. At this point Monty (who knows where the car is) opens one of the remaining two doors to reveal a goat. He does this in every episode of the show – whichever door the contestant chooses, Monty will always then open one of the remaining doors to reveal a goat. He then offers you the chance to switch from your first choice to the other unopened door. The question is: should you switch?

Sometimes The Onion packs a headline with so much satire it barely needs the accompanying article. Most recently I was impressed by American People Hire High-Powered Lobbyist To Push Interests In Congress.

From Jon Stewart’s speech at the “Rally to Restore Santiy”:

The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

This National Geographic healthcare data visualisation achieves a rare feat: showing the data in an unconventional way that nonetheless actually tells a story with the data quite well. Charlie Park has some great commentary on why a scatter plot of this data isn’t actually as useful in his general discussion of slopegraphs.

Click for big: