Thursday, September 4, 2014

Without Scotland, What of the Union Jack?

The  referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country carries with it vast political, social, and economic questions.  Chief among them, of course, is what to do about the Union Jack?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A History of Ebola

In trying to better understand the magnitude of the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, I went to the CDC's chronology of the virus and a resource describing the current status.
While the historic overview of outbreaks and their tolls aids understanding, especially for a sense of perspective given the current scope of the outbreak, most haunting is the potential of this, and other viruses, to grow non-linearly.  As such, the ongoing efforts to treat the injured and contain the virus are massively important.



Monday, July 21, 2014

Major League Baseball Players by Country

Major Leaguers by Nationality
MLB'ers Per Million

South Korea
Saudi Arabia



North America

Dominican Republic
Puerto Rico
United States



South America


Sources (as of 7/10/14):

Curaçao!  Formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, this small island country 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela consisting pretty much of one city, population 150,000, has 7 players currently in the major leagues -by far the greatest per-capita representation in the world; more than three times that of MLB talent powerhouse, Dominican Republic.  They also gobbled up the Little League World Series ten years ago with a team that included this future-major leaguer.
Cuba fields 20 players, despite the mutual ban making working in the US a real challenge for Cubans -a testament to baseball's popularity and talent density in Cuba.
Of course the Dominican Republic is well known as an incubator for baseball talent and fields 134 major league players right now, despite having a population about 33 times smaller than the US.  With the exception of Curaçao (and its relatively small sample size), the chances of a Dominican becoming a major league player are the best in the world.
South America is an interesting study.  Only three countries field major league players, but the vast majority of those players are Venezuelans (including this person who regularly delivers joy and amazement to me).  They say that the Venezuelan love of baseball (as opposed to, you know, soccer) is rooted in the long presence of oil companies in Venezuela and their transplanted Americans' bringing the national pass-time along.  Strained relationships between our two countries in recent years has reduced the external development influence, and it will be interesting to track the impact of this into the next decade.

Why Isn't This a Map?
Yeah, I started a few maps of this, but really when I just looked at the numbers I felt a lot more informed.  Sometimes numbers are enough.  There is an interesting regional story, but I think grouping the list of nationalities by geographic region is plenty.  Now I'll admit, the fact that so many major leaguers come from the tiny country of the Dominican Republic is really interesting, but is the number of players per mile (what a map would tout) really that meaningful?  Definitely not as meaningful as the number of players by population!  If I'd done a strict mapping, I'd lose the tiny but prolific MLB powerhouse of Curaçao as a blip on the vast surface of Earth.  So when a map gets in the way of understanding a phenomenon, I don't want to force it (for the same reasons that this is not a map).
On the other hand, there is a "proximity" story that gets lost in a list like this: Haiti.  When I see a country like DR, sharing an island with Haiti, who has zero MLB players, there are some important insights about the sporting consequences of poverty and the huge disparities between peoples that may be teaming with talent but without the resources to develop it.  And then I start asking myself if national sport development is important in and of itself, as a point of cultural pride and positive international visibility, or if it is tangential evidence (however cool) of a society that has the economic surplus that affords gown-ups the ability to play games, as opposed to laboring to survive.  The recent World Cup, with tiny nations competing with global giants (if the global giants even qualified) is a more embiggened example of this.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Breathing Earth: How and Why

Breathing Earth
This project surprised me in a number of ways, not least of which was the response.  It has become the most visited item around this site and I thought it would be fun to show how it was made, with the hopes that it sparks some makiness in you.

Accidental Zoetrope
One day last summer I had the opportunity to show Joshua Stevens, a cartographer I really admire, how I make severe basemaps using NASA imagery.  When I pulled up the NASA Visible Earth page (a great resource for beautiful per-month satellite imagery mosaics of earth) and scrolled down, I noticed the thumbnails dance like a zoetrope of polar ice creeping up and down.
Mental bookmark, this could be a fun project and it shouldn't take long.  As I found out later, I wasn't the first to think of this, not surprisingly.  But I was the first to do it this way.

The serendipitous zoetrope effect of dancing thumbnails as I scroll down.

Spatial Resuscitation
So I downloaded all twelve months and georectified them so that they were spatially aware and I could play with warping them into all sorts of geographic projections.  I ultimately chose an Azimuthal projection, centered over the North Pole, because it was sphere-like but I also benefited from not loosing all of the coverage of mid-latitudes at the horizon (which I would have if I'd used a truer spherey projection).  And the fact that the projection made Earth look a little trippier than if you were just seeing it as a globe was a plus.
I used ArcMap to re-project and export the images.  ArcMap has a lot of export options, including the ability to define a transparency color and define any crazy resolution you want.

Plate carrée is a convenient starting projection, but shouldn't be used for a finished map (unless you track satellite telemetry).

Good old Polar Azimuthal.  Definitely not a true globe perspective but I don't lose the interesting bits in the lower latitudes that would have otherwise wrapped off into the horizon.

One projected polar-projected image, per month, out of the GIS and into the image processor.

Ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh!  When I scroll down in the file explorer I got a flipbook sense for the ice movement.  This just might work!

I put all twelve satellite images into Fireworks and aligned them on top of each other; one per layer.  I get teased, but I like Fireworks.  I'm used to it and it seems to do anything I need.  But there is nothing here that you couldn't do in Photoshop or Gimp.
Once I added all the images I added a layer over-top filled with an elliptical fade overlay to vignette out the edges of the maps and set up the round look of the finished earth.

Stacking, aligning, and cropping the raw exported images.

Then I slightly desaturated the imagery -as is my way.  Desaturating imagery creates a more epic feel and teases out tonal variability that might otherwise be overwhelmed by hue.  I learned about this by watching the making-of DVD extras for The Fellowship of the Ring, where a post-processing artist said that in order to make the Shire feel greener they actually reduced the green band.  I thought that was wonderful.
Desaturating ratchets up an oddly paired sense of intimacy and distance, used to tremendous effect in Saving Private Ryan.

Pulling down the color saturation of the imagery has emotional and practical benefits. 

Next I drew in some atmospheric haze around the horizon.  It's just a stack of circles of lighter to darker colors that I added increasing rates of Gaussian blur to.  If you've never tried this you should, it is really fun.  Atmospheric perspective was one of the Renaissance painters greatest gifts.  It creates the sense that this disk has depth -all of the sudden it becomes a thing, rather than a snapshot.  Which is, like, the whole point.

Ohhh forced atmospheric perspective.  You had me at hello.

Then I added sources and a title -my least favorite part of the process is a title, but an important one.  I also included a small tic sequence to indicate the progression through the year, which I'll describe in the animation section below.  This one is showing December, so the first tic is highlighted.

Title and sources.  A short but descriptive name greases the skids of social share-ability. 

Because animated GIFs (I use the hard G pronunciation, even though it's wrong, because that's how it's sounded in my mind for 15 years and Jiff is peanut butter) are hard-stop frames the effect is naturally really rigid.  So between each month, I hacked a transition frame which is just the next image in line at 50% opacity.  At the right pace, the twitchiness of an animated GIF is reduced. 
Humans are really bad at change detection.  I found that 7/100ths of a second resulted in the most natural and organic pace for the annual animation -after trying a kajillion other frame rates.  My criteria was that I find a balance where I could look at the whole earth and its pulse would seem smooth but unhurried.  I also wanted to be able to look at any one spot and track it through the whole animation without it feeling like I was waiting too long to ride one full cycle.

Adding intermediate between-month frames to make the animation smoother.

When I generated the initial animation and opened it up the first time, I was taken aback.  I was hoping for a jee whiz sort of image but even though I was well aware of the process and the tricks, it evoked all sorts of personal senses of time and family and perspective on the pace of my life.  I went into somewhat embarrassing, but sincere, detail about that here, and I was honored (and relieved) to see that it had an effect on others, too.
In any case, if you've read this far, I hope you are inspired to give something like this a shot and pour your own sort of craziness into it.  It was definitely fun for me to look back on how this was made and reminisce on the process and I hope selfishly that reviewing this will help me get back to making again.  It's been a while!

Click here to see the large version (1.4 MB).
Click here to see the bonkers version (3.7 MB).
Don't click this small version or this tiny version.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

9 Things

I work at a software company, making things and helping others make things.  I'd say my contributions to the maki-ness are an even split of three areas: software UX design, customization UX design, and data visualization; as such, I get a pretty even split of conferring with cohorts, clients, and myself.  Chewing on the better part of a decade has provided me many embarrassing mistakes.  Humiliating mistakes.  Just horrendous mistakes.  From them, I can think of nine lessons that continue to rattle around in my head that have turned out to be solid gold -affording me the opportunities to make different mistakes.

Here are 9 Things...

Original Image: Alexandre Dulaunoy

1) When you get the answer you want, stop talking.
If you are asking for permission or validation of a plan, and you get it, it's really tempting to elaborate on your really thoughtful rationale because you are proud of the process.  Mistake!  Not only is it self-indulgent but it is full of risk, laying out specific opportunities around which your counterpart may change their mind.  Just accept your green light and move on confidently.  Seems pretty simple but this little angel whispers into my ear all the time.

Original Image: Graeme Maclean

2) That’s not “easy,” it’s “straightforward.”
Never tell a client that a task would be easy, because that means free.  Few things ever deliver on the promise of easiness: inevitable surprises, testing, etc.  1) Your time, experience, and thinking are valuable and even though you didn't say 'free,' that's how it sounded, and 2) just watch that "easy" thing blow up into something more complex than you suspected.  If you want to vocalize an affirmative statement of effort, replace 'easy' with 'straightforward' in just about any case and you’ll be alllllright.

Original Image: Randy Robertson

3) Just go for it.
If you work in a smallish company there is a nimbleness and probably more autonomy than you suspect.  Don’t necessarily invite or presume the comfort of bureaucratic permission.  There are certainly times of frustration when bureaucracy can feel inordinate, but consider how it is in a massive and maybe-soul-crushing entity and then re-calibrate.  If you have an idea or an initiative just go ahead and try it out, so long as it isn't preventing you from "working" (wink).  Caveats: If it involves spending money, well of course you need permission.  And the more it involves other people, the more you need to involve them (and the more likely some manager will care).  But, generally, go ahead do stuff you think is worthwhile -and get ready to live.

Original Image: Wystan

4) Don’t know? That’s ok.
Customers, and I suppose managers, don’t expect you to know everything -but they definitely expect you to find out.  Whatever you do, don't give in to the urge to grope for a guess or nervously ramble (like I have done too often, and still do, probably).  Just own it.  Here is the four-step dance of this move:
1) Admit you don’t know, 2) claim the homework, 3) ensure a timely response, and 4) get a verbal ‘ok’.
A couple Cliff’s Notes examples:
“You know what, I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head, but let me ask the smart kids and I’ll get back to you, ok?”
“That’s a good question, let us do some homework on our end, and we’ll come back with some options in our next meeting.  Does that sound alright?”

Original Image: Travis Isaacs

5) Let the customer talk.
Never interrupt a customer.  Let them talk through their idea or problem.  They are the subject matter experts so there is a lot to learn -this is your chance.  Even if you strongly disagree on a suggestion for how a feature of tool is built (because you are more familiar with building them), you will be surprised at how often their line of thinking will come around once they work through it out loud.  And then it was their idea, and buy-in is secured.  And if that doesn't work, proceed to number 6...

Original Image: John Smith

6) Hear dictated solutions but listen for the root problem.
Often a customer or coworker, who is speaking with you as a valuable resource, will dictate a solution -rather than describe their problem and work together on a solution.  That’s ok, just try to mentally translate all dictated solutions to a description of the problem, on the fly as you listen.  Repeat back to them what you understand the real issue to be or problem to solve (without rejecting their prescription), naturally steering into a more collaborative and productive conversation.  You were hired for creativity and problem-solving, not as a commodity (if that's not true, take stock).

Original Image: Eran Finkle

7) Know when to ice an email.
Recognize when you are in an email fight and just cool off.  This can happen without your realizing it initially.  Email is fast and not spoken directly to a human face, and back-and-forths can grow terse.  So some level of anonymity, and the more callous retorts that that invites, is at play (how more likely are you to show anger to those on the other side of a car window than you are when standing in line next to them?).  If you are in a back and forth like that, make a phone call -stuff's going to go way better.  Failing that, shelve it for a couple hours and see if time gives you wisdom.  Relatedly, it is hard to emote in an email and something you confidently type in friendly sass can be intoned by a reader as really aggressive.  Good rule of thumb: Are you mad? If yes, your resultant email is likely to be counterproductive unless you’re really really careful.

Original Image: Steve

8) You do not own what you make.
This is one of the biggest emotional traps an employee who makes can fall into (if you make for hire).  While your job may involve your creativity, ingenuity, time, and effort, the result is not yours.  You are trading those things for payment (financial, and intrinsic satisfaction).  While you may be the one creating something, you are only a steward of it.  Additionally, your work, however autonomous feeling, comes from an ecosystem of collaboration, tasks, customer access, and a creative environment provided by your employer.  The most angst-ridden situations in a software company can come from the easily misguided notion that something is yours, resulting in: a reluctance to share information and responsibility, feelings of betrayal when the project is reassigned, and heartache if the project is cancelled.

Original Image: Kenny Louie

9) Your job is only a part of who you are.
While we spend maybe most of our waking time here at our jobs, and we invest our love into what we do and with whom we work, and hopefully take significant reward from our contributions, we are not our jobs.  It’s a great reward to love what you do, but we aren't our title.  Be careful not to over-allocate how you make a living into your sense of who you are.  This is a tough one, but balance and diversification can avoid some painful shifts and unhealthy expectations.  It especially helps you live in the moment outside of the office and with those you love, rather than caught up in distractions.

Anyway, that's that.  Nine things.