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138 Years of Popular Science

Magazine shots - Popular Science

Near the end of this summer, I was asked by the publishers of Popular Science magazine to produce a visualization piece that explored the archive of their publication. PopSci has a history that spans almost 140 years, so I knew there would be plenty of material to draw from. Working with Mark Hansen, I ended up making a graphic that showed how different technical and cultural terms have come in and out of use in the magazine since its inception.

The graphic is anchored by a kind of molecular chain – decade clusters in turn contain year clusters. Every atom in these year clusters is a single issue of the magazine, and is shaded with colours extracted from the issue covers via a colour clustering routine. The size of the issue-atoms is determined by the number of words in each issue.

Magazine shots - Popular Science

Magazine shots - Popular Science

Surrounding this chain are about 70 word frequency histograms showing the issue-by-issue usage of different terms (like ‘software’ or ‘bakelite’). I used a simple space-filling algorithm to place these neatly around the molecule chain, and to stack them so that one histogram begins shortly after another ends. This ended up resulting in some interesting word chains that show how technology has progressed – some that make sense (microcomputer to e-mail) and some what are more whimsical (supernatural to periscope to datsun to fax).

Picking out interesting words from all of the available choices (pretty much the entire dictionary) was a tricky part of the process. I built a custom tool in Processing that pre-visualized the frequency plots of each word so that I could go through many, many possibilities and identify the ones that would be interesting to include in the final graphic. This is a really common approach for me to take – building small tools during the process of a project that help me solve specific problems. For this visualization, I actually ended up writing 4 tools in Processing – only one of which contributed visually to the final result.

My working process is riddled with dead-ends, messy errors and bad decisions – the ‘final’ product usually sits on top of a mountain of iterations that rarely see the light of day. To give a bit of insight into the steps between concept and product, I’ve put together a Flickr set showing 134 process images that came out of the development of this visualization. Here are a few images from that set:

Rough beginning

Popular Science - Process

Early molecular chain

Popular Science - Process

Denser chain with test ‘word span’

Popular Science - Process

A diversion

Popular Science - Process

Near-final

Popular Science - Process

Lost in the image records are the steps that involved the data – and there were a lot of them. The archive was text that came from an OCR (optical character recognition) process, and was incredibly messy. To make matters worse, the file names for each issue were machine-generated and didn’t tie to the actual date order of the documents. A great deal of our time was spent cleaning up this data, and compiling customized datasets (many of which never ended up getting used).

While the final graphic is pictured above, it looks much better in print – so make sure you get a copy! Better yet, you can order a poster-sized version of the graphic by clicking here.

2 == 3 Sale on Etsy Prints

NYTimes - 2008 - Print

I am going to be traveling for a few months starting at the end of April, and I have a pile of prints here that will be sitting idle if they don’t get shipped out the door before then. So, how ’bout a sale?

Single prints: 15% off

2 prints: 25% off

3 prints: Third (least expensive) print is free!

Free print: I’ll ship a free 18″x10″ flower.trees print to a random person who Tweets about this sale, using the hashtag #blprnts. I’ll draw this winner at 10PM PST, on Tuesday April 6th.

You can check out what I have in stock at my Etsy store. If you purchase via Etsy (this is easiest), I’ll refund you the discount/free print. Otherwise, get in touch and we can sort things out. All prints are on Hahnemühle photo-rag paper, and are printed with archival-quality inks. They are shipped flat. Some prints are editions (signed and numbered) – all prints come signed.

I’ll be shipping prints on Tuesday, April 13th. Please get orders in to me by Sunday, April 11th.

Finding Perspective: Haiti Earthquake Aid in Avatar Minutes

Haiti Earthqauke Aid by Nation - In Avatar Minutes

Haiti Earthqauke Aid by Nation - In Avatar Minutes

We’ve heard a lot this week about earthquake aid for Haiti. As is always the case when large numbers are bandied about in the news media, it’s hard to get a feeling of scale. For example, Canada has, at the time of writing, pledged to donate nearly 5.5M dollars to the aid effort. What does this number really mean? Well, considering Canada’s population of 33.3M, the aid works out to about 16 cents per Canadian citizen. 16 cents doesn’t buy you much these days. A sip of coffee, or – say – 3.14 minutes of Avatar; barely enough to get through the credits.

Haiti Earthqauke Aid by Nation - In Avatar Minutes

How many Avatar minutes are governments around the world pledging? Sweden leads the way, with almost 38 minutes per citizen – almost a quarter of the movie. Other Scandinavian countries round out the top 6, along with Luxembourg, Guyana, and Estonia.

Haiti Earthqauke Aid by Nation - In Avatar Minutes

Here are the times for some other countries:

  • Sweden: 38 minutes
  • Luxembourg: 28 minutes
  • Denmark: 26 minutes
  • Guyana: 25 minutes
  • Norway: 20 minutes
  • Estonia: 14 minutes
  • Australia: 8 minutes
  • Finland: 6 minutes
  • United States: 6 minutes
  • Switzerland: 5 minutes
  • New Zealand: 4 minutes
  • Netherlands: 3 minutes
  • United Kingdom: 3 minutes
  • Canada: 3 minutes
  • Spain: 2 minutes
  • Brazil: 2 minutes
  • Germany: 1 minute
  • Japan: 1 minute
  • Morocco: 1 minute
  • Poland: 1 minute
  • Italy: 1 minute


The images in this post are exports from a Processing tool that I built to manage the data and to render the film strips. The application reads data from a Google spreadsheet – the original data was published by the always excellent Guardian Data Blog. If there’s enough interest, I will post the tool and the source later this week.

Sweden: 38 seconds
Luxembourg: 28 seconds
Denmark: 26 seconds
Guyana: 25 seconds
Norway: 20 seconds
Estonia: 14 seconds
Australia: 8 seconds
Finland: 6 seconds
United States: 6 seconds
Switzerland: 5 seconds
New Zealand: 4 seconds
Netherlands: 3 seconds
United Kingdom: 3 seconds
Canada: 3 seconds
Spain: 2 seconds
Brazil: 2 seconds
Germany: 1 seconds
Japan: 1 seconds
Morocco: 1 seconds
Poland: 1 seconds
Italy: 1 seconds

Haiti Earthqauke Aid by Nation - In Avatar Minutes

Haiti Earthqauke Aid by Nation - In Avatar Minutes

Tokyo | Cairo: Comparing Obama’s Foreign Policy Speeches

Tokyo | Cairo: Comparing Obama's Foreign Policy Speeches

I spent a little bit of time today working on my text comparison tool, which I built last weekend to satisfy my curiosity about the similarities and differences between two very similar articles published on head injuries in the NFL (you can read the post here). I wanted to test out the tool with a different kind of content, and settled on something more political: two high profile foreign policy speeches by US President Barack Obama.

The first speech is Obama’s famous open address to the Muslim world, given in July at the University of Cairo. The second is much more recent – yesterday’s speech delivered at the Suntory Hall in Tokyo. As you might expect, the two speeches share a lot of common language. Here is the big picture, showing the top 100 words:

Tokyo | Cairo: Comparing Obama's Foreign Policy Speeches

The shared words – ‘america’,’world’,’common’,’human’,’responsibility’, ect don’t offer much in the way of analysis. Things start to get interesting, though, when we look towards the edges (click on the images to see larger versions):

Tokyo | Cairo: Comparing Obama's Foreign Policy Speeches Tokyo | Cairo: Comparing Obama's Foreign Policy Speeches

At the far extremes, the speech in Cairo was about Islam, about Palestinians, about peace, faith, and communities. The Tokyo address was about China, North Korea, security, agreement and growth. If we look at some of the common words that were used in both speeches, we can see some more interesting patterns emerge.

It seems, for instance that the Egyptian address was more about people, whereas the speech in Tokyo was directed towards nations:

Tokyo | Cairo: Comparing Obama's Foreign Policy Speeches

Obama makes many more mentions about peace in Cairo (in Japan, this word seems to have been replaced by ‘security’), and far more mentions of prosperity in Tokyo:

Tokyo | Cairo: Comparing Obama's Foreign Policy Speeches

There was a lot of speculation prior to Obama’s speech in Asia about how much focus the President would put on human rights. In the speech, Obama mentions ‘rights’ only five times – once at the beginning of the speech and four times near the end. This weighting is interesting when we compare it to Obama’s reference to China during the speech, which is heavily concentrated at the beginning (China is not mentioned at all past the half-way point of the speech):

Tokyo | Cairo: Comparing Obama's Foreign Policy Speeches

Though one of the five occurrences of ‘rights’ is in reference to China, it appears from this analysis that there may have been a deliberate plan to keep the ‘human rights part’ of the speech separated from the ‘China part’.

There likely many interesting things in this data set, a lot of which are open to interpretation. While it’s doubtful that one can steer entirely clear of political biases during this kind of comparison, the quantitative nature of the data makes it a little bit easier to make an attempt at nonpartisan analysis. I will be including these speeches as sample texts when I release the tool to the public (hopefully next week).

7 Days of Source: Intermission

I realize now that it was a bit ambitious to promise 7 days of source code in 7 days – here we are 11 days later, with 2 source releases left to go. While I certainly could have anticipated a trip to Pittsburgh and a busy week with my current residency, I was taken by surprise by a broken computer.

Excuses aside, I will still be releasing the last two projects – I have them lined up and am adding as many helpful comments as I can before they get posted. Expect to see them sometime next week.