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kottke.org posts about infoviz

A Genealogy of Technology and Power Since 1500

This is kind of amazing: Calculating Empires is a project by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler attempting to map how technology and human social structures have changed and evolved since 1500. This is just a tiny bit of the large genealogical map:

snippet of a map of the genealogy of technology and power since 1500

Calculating Empires is a large-scale research visualization exploring how technical and social structures co-evolved over five centuries. The aim is to view the contemporary period in a longer trajectory of ideas, devices, infrastructures, and systems of power. It traces technological patterns of colonialism, militarization, automation, and enclosure since 1500 to show how these forces still subjugate and how they might be unwound. By tracking these imperial pathways, Calculating Empires offers a means of seeing our technological present in a deeper historical context. And by investigating how past empires have calculated, we can see how they created the conditions of empire today.

See also Anatomy of an AI System. (via @kurtbandersen)

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Data Visualization of the Most Common PIN Numbers

Based on an analysis of leaked PIN numbers by Nick Berry, Information is Beautiful made this visualization of the most common PINs.

Data Visualization of the Most Common PIN Numbers

According to the analysis, just 20 4-digit numbers account for 27% of all PINs: 1234, 0000, 7777, 2000, 2222, 9999, 5555, 1122, 8888, 2001, 1111, 1212, 1004, 4444, 6969 (nice), 3333, 6666, 1313, 4321, 1010. The diagonal line is people using repeated pairs of digits (e.g. 2727 or 8888) while the horizontal line near the bottom is people who are presumably using their (19xx) birth year as a PIN. (You can see the beginning of a 20xx line on the left side.)

The best causally unguessable PINs would seem to be unrepeated pairs of numbers greater than 50 — so 8957, 7064, 9653, etc. Choose wisely.

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A Huge Collaborative Flipbook Animation

I love this: The Pudding ran an online experiment where they started with a shape (like a straight line or circle) and asked people to trace, as best they could, the tracing of the person before them. This resulted in a series of “flipbook” animation of how the shapes evolved over time — invariably, a squiggle.

One thing I noticed right away was how all the squiggles ended up squished over on the right side of the screen. The Pudding team had a theory on why that happened (the 3:20 mark in this video):

I found this study from like 35 years ago - they were trying to figure out why people kept missing their targets on touch screens. They found people tended to touch below their target and people tended to touch closer to the edges of the screen. And so I figure if it’s like right-handers who are missing, you’re going to be missing to the right. We probably had about half the users on mobile and 90% of the those half are probably going to be right-handed so it would make sense that it would gradually go to the right.

Go read the rest of the post — they also did an experiment about people’s inclination to draw penises on “any free-form drawing project on the internet”. (via waxy)

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Are the Kids Alright When They Grow Up?

This is a teenager is an interactive data visualization by Alvin Chang about a group of American teenagers that have been tracked in a longitudinal study since 1997 (they are around 40 years old now). The video version of the visualization is embedded above.

A year from now, in 1998, a researcher named Vincent Felitti will publish a paper that drastically changes the way we think about these kids — and their childhood.

The research will show that these childhood stressors and traumas — called Adverse Childhood Experiences — have a lifelong effect on our health, relationships, happiness, financial security, and pretty much everything else that we value. It will kickstart decades of research that shows that our childhood experiences shape our adulthood far more than we ever thought.

This is a good companion to a recent post, End-Stage Poverty Is Killing People in Safety Net-Free America.

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The Evolution of Mozart’s Music (From 5 to 35 Years Old)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s first surviving musical composition was created at age five and in this video visualization, you can hear and see how his music evolved from that early piece to those created in his 20s and 30s. Not knowing a whole lot about music or of Mozart in particular, I was shocked at how incredible his compositions were at ages five, six, and seven. Sheesh.

See also Hear the Pieces Mozart Composed When He Was Only Five Years Old. (via open culture)

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McDonald’s Locations vs. Golf Courses

When I linked to a recent NY Times article about rewilding golf courses, I pulled out this startling fact: “The United States has more golf courses than McDonald’s locations.” Nathan Yau of FlowingData found that that is indeed true but wondered where all of the golf courses were actually located. (A: typically not in cities where the McDonald’s are concentrated).

a map of the distribution of golf courses and McDonald's in the US

This makes more sense now. You can have a golf course in an area where there aren’t that many people, because people will travel to play golf. Few people are going to travel specifically for McDonald’s.

If we compare the two, you see the McDonald’s city concentrations, and golf fills the in-between spaces.

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FAA Aviation Maps

FAA map of Chicago O'Hare airport

FAA map of an airport in Alaska

FAA map of the Houston airport

On Beautiful Public Data, Jon Keegan highlights the extremely information-rich flight maps produced by the Federal Aviation Administration that pilots use to find their way around the skies.

Among all of the visual information published by the U.S. government, there may be no product with a higher information density than the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) aviation maps. Intended for pilots, the FAA publishes free detailed maps of the entire U.S. airspace, and detailed maps of airports and their surroundings and updates them frequently. The density of the critical information layered on these maps is staggering, and it is a miracle that pilots can easily decipher these maps’ at a glance.

Oh wow, this takes me back. My dad was a pilot when I was a kid and he had a bunch of FAA maps in the house, in his planes, and even on the walls of his office. I remember finding these maps both oddly beautiful and almost completely inscrutable. What a treat to be able to finally figure out how to read them, at least a little bit. And the waypoint names are fun too:

Orlando, FL has many Disney themed waypoints such as JAFAR, PIGLT, JAZMN, TTIGR, MINEE, HKUNA and MTATA. Flying into Orlando, your plane might use the SNFLD arrival path, taking you past NOOMN, FORYU, SNFLD, JRRYY and GTOUT.

Based on the waypoints near Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, this airport must be home to some of the nerdiest air traffic controllers. There’s a crazy number of Lord of the Rings waypoints: HOBTT, SHYRE, FRDDO, BLLBO, BGGNS, NZGUL, RAETH, ORRKK, GOLLM, ROHUN, GONDR, GIMLY, STRDR, SMAWG and GNDLF.

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The Bird Migration Explorer

a map of North and South Americas with thinly drawn lines representing the migratory patterns of hundreds of species of birds

I loved playing around with the National Audubon Society’s Bird Migration Explorer, which is a beautifully designed interactive map of the Western hemisphere that shows the seasonal migration patterns of more than 450 species of birds. What a resource…so much information to explore here. (via marco c. in the comments)

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The Layers of the Earth

a humorous 3D cutaway map of the many (absurd) layers of the Earth

From XKCD, a 3D cutaway map of the many layers of the Earth, from the familiar crust around the outside to the more mysterious layers like nougat, vitreous humor, guacamole, and cork.


A Family of Humming-Birds

a poster depicting hundreds of hummingbirds in a swarm

Wow, Nicholas Rougeux has restored John Gould’s A Monograph of the Trochilidæ, or Family of Humming-Birds, which was published between 1848 & 1887 and contains hand-colored lithographic depictions of almost every single hummingbird species known to exist at the time.

a pair of hummingbirds fly amongst flowers

two hummingbirds perch on a plant

three hummingbirds perch on a flowering plant

From Rougeux’s page about the project:

The monograph is considered one of the finest examples of ornithological illustration ever produced, as well as a scientific masterpiece. Gould’s passion for hummingbirds led him to travel to various parts of the world, such as North America, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, to observe and collect specimens. He also received many specimens from other naturalists and collectors.

The image at the top of the post is the gorgeous poster that Rougeux created from the drawings in Gould’s monograph…you can order some for your walls and read a making-of.

See also other projects by Rougeux that I’ve posted about.


The Plot of All Objects in the Universe

a scientific plot of all of the objects in the universe

You just have to admire a chart that casually purports to show every single thing in the Universe in one simple 2D plot. The chart in question is from a piece in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Physics with the understated title of “All objects and some questions”.

In Fig. 2, we plot all the composite objects in the Universe: protons, atoms, life forms, asteroids, moons, planets, stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters, giant voids, and the Universe itself. Humans are represented by a mass of 70 kg and a radius of 50 cm (we assume sphericity), while whales are represented by a mass of 10^5 kg and a radius of 7 m.

The “sub-Planckian unknown” and “forbidden by gravity” sections of the chart makes the “quantum uncertainty” section seem downright normal — the paper collectively calls these “unphysical regions”. Lovely turns of phrase all.

But what does it all mean? My physics is too rusty to say, but I thought one of the authors’ conjectures was particularly intriguing: “Our plot of all objects also seems to suggest that the Universe is a black hole.” Huh, cool.


The 2023 Fall Foliage Prediction Map

a map of the United States that shows where the leaves are going to start changing colors and when

Well, it is that time of year again when the leaves in the northern hemisphere change colors. As usual, SmokyMountains.com has published their best guess as to when the leaves will be changing in various parts of the country. At the end of September and beginning of October here in Vermont, it’ll start looking like this.


Building a Scale Model of Time

The length of a human life is around 80 years. You might get 100 if you’re lucky. The universe is about 13.7 billion years old. The vast difference between a human lifespan and the age of the universe can be difficult to grasp — even the words we use in attempting to describe it (like “vast”) are comically insufficient.

To help us visualize what a difference of eight orders of magnitude might look like, Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh have created a scale model of time in the Mojave Desert, from the Big Bang to the present day. This is really worth watching and likely to make you think some big think thoughts about your place in the universe and in your life.

This is a followup of the scale model of the solar system they built and a video they made about people seeing the Moon through a telescope for the first time.

See also a behind-the-scenes: How We Built a Scale Model of Time. (via colossal)


Visualizations of American Household Types

Based on data from a 2021 survey, FlowingData made these cool infographics of all of the different types of households in the United States. Here are the ten most common:

infographic of the 10 most common household types in the US

Single homeowners are the most common but look at #9: inmate. Shameful.


Curve-Fitting Methods and the Messages They Send

Curve-Fitting Methods and the Messages They Send

From XKCD, Curve-Fitting Methods and the Messages They Send. Ahhhh, this takes me back to my research days in college, tinkering with best fits and R-squared values…


Five Graphs That Changed the World

In a video from The Royal Society, Adam Rutherford shares five data visualizations that have changed the world, including Florence Nightingale’s Crimean War mortality charts, John Snow’s map of cholera outbreaks, W.E.B. Du Bois’ data portraits of Black Americans, eugenicist Henry Goddard’s notorious (and fictional) Kallikak family tree, and Ed Hawkins’ climate warming stripes. (via open culture)


Exhibition of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Infographics at Cooper Hewitt in NYC

I’ve written before about the data visualizations created by W.E.B. Du Bois for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. Apparently a selection of these infographics are on display at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in NYC until May 29.

infographic designed by W.E.B. Du Bois titled 'Assessed value of household and kitchen furniture owned by Georgia negros'

Wish I could get down there to see these…


The Sound of a Dialup Modem, Visualized and Explained

There are few sounds that can transport me back to a specific time and place like the handshake of a dialup modem. I heard that arrangement of noises thousands of times sitting at my desk in rural Wisconsin, trying to soak up the entire internet. That sound meant freedom, connection, knowledge.

Oona Räisänen created this great visualization and explanation of what’s going on when a modem is making those noises.

a visualization of the sounds made by a dialup modem

If you ever connected to the Internet before the 2000s, you probably remember that it made a peculiar sound. But despite becoming so familiar, it remained a mystery for most of us. What do these sounds mean?

As many already know, what you’re hearing is often called a handshake, the start of a telephone conversation between two modems. The modems are trying to find a common language and determine the weaknesses of the telephone channel originally meant for human speech.

See also this other visualization of dialup sounds, opera singers dubbed with dialup modems, and a vocal arrangement of the modem handshake.


Why Did South Koreans Get So Much Taller in the Past 100 Years?

Genetics determines most of how tall children will grow as adults, but environmental factors affect it too. As the wealth of many countries around the world has increased over the past 100 years, living conditions and access to nutrition have improved and people have gotten taller.

A century ago, humans were quite short. For example, the average South Korean woman was about 4-foot-7, or 142 centimeters, while the average American woman was about 5-foot-2, or 159 centimeters. Humans were fairly short by today’s standards, and that was true throughout nearly all of human history.

But in the past century, human heights have skyrocketed. Globally, humans grew about 3 inches on average, but in South Korea, women grew an astounding 8 inches and men grew 6 inches.

South Korea is almost unique in how quickly their population has gotten taller because they went from a relatively low-income country in the 1950s to well on their way to being a rich, industrialized country by the 90s. And the difference is particularly stark when you compare the heights of South Koreans with those of North Koreans, where the living standard is much lower and access to nutrition is restricted.

I really like the show-your-work vibe of this video, along with this recent one on the greatest unexpected performances in the NBA. These videos are not only relating something interesting to the audience, they’re showing us how the data analysis works: where the data is from, how it’s analyzed, and what it all means, which builds data and statistical literacy in a society that desperately needs it.


The Greatest Unexpected NBA Performances

Ok this video from The Pudding is cool for two different reasons. First, you learn about which NBA player had the most unexpectedly great performance since 1985 (e.g. when a guy who is usually good for 6-8 pts inexplicably drops 50). But, you also get a fun little tutorial in how statistical analysis works and the importance of paying attention to the right data in order to get an answer that’s actually meaningful and relevant. How to interpret data in this way is an under-appreciated aspect in the bombardment of data and statistics we see in the media these days and teaching more people about it doesn’t have to be boring or stuffy.

The Pudding also sets an example here by working in the open: the data they used for their analysis is available on Github.


Where the Elements Came From

a color-coded periodic table of the elements that shows how each element was created

From Wikipedia contributor Cmglee and Astronomy Picture of the Day, a color-coded periodic table that displays which cosmic events — the Big Bang, exploding stars, merging neutron stars, etc. — was responsible for creating each element, according to our present understanding of the universe.

The hydrogen in your body, present in every molecule of water, came from the Big Bang. There are no other appreciable sources of hydrogen in the universe. The carbon in your body was made by nuclear fusion in the interior of stars, as was the oxygen. Much of the iron in your body was made during supernovas of stars that occurred long ago and far away. The gold in your jewelry was likely made from neutron stars during collisions that may have been visible as short-duration gamma-ray bursts or gravitational wave events.

The data for the table came from OSU’s Jennifer Johnson, who quotes Carl Sagan:

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.

(thx, caroline)


Visualizing How Rich Jeff Bezos Is

a comparison of the wealth of Jeff Bezos with the median US household

In 9 Ways to Imagine Jeff Bezos’ Wealth, Mona Chalabi provides us with some data visualizations that can help us wrap our heads around just how much money Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has. For instance, if the width of an Oreo cookie represents the median net worth of a US household, Bezos’ wealth is twice the width of the Grand Canyon.

See also 1 pixel wealth, Printing Money, and Spend Bill Gates’ Money.


Beautiful News: Positive Trends, Uplifting Stats, Creative Solutions

For the past few years, David McCandless at Beautiful News Daily has been sharing infographics about positive developments in the world, the “stuff we can’t always see because we’re fixated on the negativity of the news”. Now all that good news has been bundled into a new book, Beautiful News: Positive Trends, Uplifting Stats, Creative Solutions. Here are a couple of sample pages from the book:

charts showing the power and potential of geothermal energy

graph showing that world hunger has reached its lowest point in 20 years


For What It’s Worth

sphere of metal next to a mine

sphere of metal next to a mine

sphere of metal next to a mine

diamond gemstone next to a mine

For his project For What It’s Worth, Dillon Marsh created 1:1 scale visualizations of the minerals extracted from South African mines and placed them in photos of the mines themselves. From top to bottom above, a sphere of the 284,000 metric tonnes of copper extracted from the O’Kiep mine, a sphere of the 9500 metric tonnes of gold from the Free State Gold Field, a sphere of 3850 metric tonnes of platinum extracted in total in South Africa since 1924, and a gemstone of the 7.6 million carats of diamonds extracted from the Koffiefontein Mine.

The diamond in particular, which you might not be able to see in that photo (it’s on a vertical stand right in front of the massive hole), underscores just how tiny the amount of material pulled out of these massive mines is, especially when you factor in all the manpower, machinery, injuries, fatalities, and environmental damage related to mining. All that for a bit of shine. (via clive thompson)


US Beatles Albums Weren’t the Same As UK Beatles Albums

Throughout the relatively short recording career of The Beatles, and as late as 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour, the band’s albums released in the United States were, in some cases, quite different than those released in the UK. Jared Pike explains the differences in this comprehensive video:

Pike also made a chart of all the releases and which albums they appeared on, which you can download here. The image is too tall to include here, but here’s an excerpt that shows some of the reorganization that was done for American audiences:

a portion of a chart that compares the track listings of UK Beatles albums vs US Beatles albums

I just looked on Spotify here in America and they’re using the UK versions of the albums (at least for Rubber Soul and Revolver). I wonder how long that’s been the case? According to Wikipedia, it looks like when the band’s albums were reissued on CD in 1987, the track listings were standardized to the UK/international release.


Graphs Built With Townscaper Buildings

Townscaper Dataviz

This is neat: Clive Thompson built a little app that converts tabular data into a bar chart using houses from the video game Townscaper. Says Thompson:

A few days ago I was placing houses in a long row, with varying heights. And when I looked at the jagged result I thought:

Hey, that looks like a bar chart!

That made me wonder, hmmm, could I use Townscaper as a dataviz tool? Could I write code that takes data and turns it into a row of buildings?

See also Dan Malec’s algorithmic Townscaper towns.


Decoding Manhattan: Island of Diagrams, Maps, and Graphics

pages of a book called Decoding Manhattan with maps, charts, and other graphic representations of the city

Well, I’m not sure this book could be any further up my alley; I mean:

The life and legend of New York City, from the size of its skyscrapers to the ways of its inhabitants, is vividly captured in this lively collection of more than 250 maps, cross sections, flowcharts, tables, board games, cartoons and infographics, and other unique diagrams spanning 150 years. Superstars such as Saul Steinberg, Maira Kalman, Christoph Niemann, Roz Chast, and Milton Glaser butt up against the unsung heroes of the popular press in a book that is made not only for lovers of New York but also for anyone who enjoys or works with information design.


CDC Report Shows Steep Drop in US Life Expectancy in 2020

The CDC recently released their report on Mortality in the United States, 2020 and this graph of US life expectancy at birth since 1950 by Christopher Ingraham dramatically summarizes the report’s main finding:

graph showing US life expectancy at birth since 1950, featuring a steep drop in 2020

That’s a decrease in life expectancy of 1.8 years from 2019. Here are some more of the report’s significant findings:

In 2020, life expectancy at birth was 77.0 years for the total U.S. population — a decrease of 1.8 years from 78.8 years in 2019. For males, life expectancy decreased 2.1 years from 76.3 in 2019 to 74.2 in 2020. For females, life expectancy decreased 1.5 years from 81.4 in 2019 to 79.9 in 2020.

In 2020, the difference in life expectancy between females and males was 5.7 years, an increase of 0.6 year from 2019.

graph of the death rates in the US for 2020

The age-adjusted death rate for the total population increased 16.8% from 715.2 per 100,000 standard population in 2019 to 835.4 in 2020. Age-adjusted death rates increased in 2020 from 2019 for all race-ethnicity-sex groups, increasing 42.7% for Hispanic males, 32.4% for Hispanic females, 28.0% for non-Hispanic Black males, 24.9% for non-Hispanic Black females, 13.4% for non-Hispanic White males, and 12.1% for non-Hispanic White females.

graph of the leading causes of death in the US in 2020

In 2020, 9 of the 10 leading causes of death remained the same as in 2019. The top leading cause was heart disease, followed by cancer. COVID-19, newly added as a cause of death in 2020, became the 3rd leading cause of death. Of the remaining leading causes in 2020 (unintentional injuries, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases, Alzheimer disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, and kidney disease), 5 causes changed ranks from 2019. Unintentional injuries, the 3rd leading cause in 2019, became the 4th leading cause in 2020. Chronic lower respiratory diseases, the 4th leading cause in 2019, became the 6th. Alzheimer disease, the 6th leading cause in 2019, became the 7th. Diabetes, the 7th leading cause in 2019, became the 8th. Kidney disease, the 8th leading cause in 2019, became the 10th leading cause in 2020. Stroke, and influenza and pneumonia, remained the 5th and 9th leading causes, respectively. Suicide dropped from the list of 10 leading causes in 2020.

And from the report’s summary:

From 2019 to 2020, the age-adjusted death rate for the total population increased 16.8%. This single-year increase is the largest since the first year that annual mortality data for the entire United States became available. The decrease in life expectancy for the total population of 1.8 years from 2019 to 2020 is the largest single-year decrease in more than 75 years.

Since more people in the US died of Covid in 2021 than in 2020, I’d expect the decline life expectancy and the rise in death rate to continue.


Humans (and Vaccines!) Vs the Microbes

From Max Roser at Our World in Data: Our history is a battle against the microbes: we lost terribly before science, public health, and vaccines allowed us to protect ourselves.

Science is the foundation for our success. 150 years ago nobody knew where diseases came from. Or more precisely, people thought they knew, but they were wrong. The widely accepted idea at the time was the ‘Miasma’ theory of disease. Miasma, the theory held, was a form of “bad air” that causes disease. The word malaria is testament to the idea that ‘mal aria’ — ‘bad air’ in medieval Italian — is the cause of the disease.

Thanks to the work of a number of doctors and chemists in the second half of the 19th century humanity learned that not noxious air, but specific germs cause infectious diseases. The germ theory of disease was the breakthrough in the fight against the microbe. Scientists identified the pathogens that cause the different diseases and thereby laid the foundation for perhaps the most important technical innovation in our fight against them: vaccines.

Here’s what vaccines did for us, in three charts:

graphs showing marked reduction in cases and deaths for smallpox, polio, and measles

Even among those who accept and understand how good vaccines are at stopping disease, it’s difficult to truly appreciate just how incredible and transformative they have been. By one estimate, vaccines saved between 150 & 200 million lives from 1980 & 2018…and that’s just for smallpox. Covid-19 vaccines have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe and the US in the first year of their availability. Truly a miraculous invention.


Time Lapse Map of Covid-19’s Spread Across the US, 2/2020 to 9/2021

Using data from Johns Hopkins, this time lapse video shows the spread of Covid-19 across the US from Feb 2020 to Sept 2021. This looks so much like small fires exploding into raging infernos and then dying down before flaring up all over again. Indeed, forest fire metaphors seem to be particularly useful in describing pandemics like this.

Think of COVID-19 as a fire burning in a forest. All of us are trees. The R0 is the wind speed. The higher it is, the faster the fire tears through the forest. But just like a forest fire, COVID-19 needs fuel to keep going. We’re the fuel.

In other forest fire metaphorical scenarios, people are ‘kindling’, ‘sparks being thrown off’ (when infecting others) and ‘fuel’ (when becoming infected). In these cases, fire metaphors convey the dangers posed by people being in close proximity to one another, but without directly attributing blame: people are described as inanimate entities (trees, kindling, fuel) that are consumed by the fire they contribute to spread.

See also A Time Lapse World Map of Every Covid-19 Death (from July 2020).