No Matter What You Say, I’m Still Me

As many long-time readers know, I was long ago bitten by the genealogy bug and that included me taking several DNA tests. The real value remains in the genetic matches, less so the ethnicity estimates. But the estimates are fun, I’ll give you that. Every so often the companies update their analysis of the DNA and you will see your ethnicity results change. I wrote about this last year. Well yesterday I received an e-mail that this year’s updates were released.

So you get another graphic.

The clearest change is that the Scottish bit has disappeared. How do you go from nearly 20% Scottish to 0%? Because population groups in the British isles have mixed for centuries. When the Scottish colonised northern Ireland, they brought Scottish DNA with them. And as I am fairly certain that I have Irish ancestors from present-day Northern Ireland, it would make sense that my DNA could read as Scottish. But clearly with the latest analysis, Ancestry is able to better point to that bit as Irish instead of Scottish. And this shouldn’t surprise you or me, because those purple bars represent their confidence bands. I might have been 20% Scottish, but I also could have been reasonably 0% Scottish.

Contrast that to the Carpatho-Rusyn, identified here as Eastern European and Russian. That hovers around 20%, which makes sense because my maternal grandfather was 100% Carpatho-Rusyn—his mother was born in the old country, present-day Slovakia. We inherit 50% of our DNA from each of our parents, but because they also inherit 50%, we don’t necessarily inherit exactly 25% from our grandparents and 12.5% from our great-grandparents, &c.

But also note how the confidence band for my Carpatho-Rusyn side has narrowed considerably over the last three years. As has collected more samples, they’re better able to identify that type of DNA as Carpatho-Rusyn.

Finally we have the trace results. Often these are misreads. A tiny bit of DNA may look like something else. Often these come and go each year with each update. But the Sweden and Denmark bit persisted this year with the exact same values. If I compare my matches, my paternal side almost always has some Swedish and Danish ethnicity, not so for my maternal side. And importantly, those matches have more. Remember, because of that inheritance my matches further up on my tree should have more DNA, and that holds true.

That leads me to believe this likely isn’t a misread, but rather is an indication that I probably have an ancestor who was from what today we call Sweden or Denmark. Could be. Maybe. But at 2%, assuming the DNA all came from one person, it’s probably a 4th to a 6th great-grandparent depending on how much I and my direct ancestors inherited.

Clearly there’s more work to do.

Climate Conscientious and Cheaper Cars

Sometimes in the course of my work I stumble across graphics and work that I previously missed. In this case I was seeking a post about one of my favourite infographics, but it turned out I’ve never posted about it and so I will have to rectify that someday. However in my searching, I came upon an article from the New York Times last year where they wrote about research from MIT that compared the carbon dioxide emissions—bad for the environment and climate—per mile to the average monthly cost of a wide range of 2021 vehicles. The important distinction here is that average monthly cost is not the sticker price of a vehicle, but rather the sticker price plus lifetime operating costs. (For their analysis, the authors assumed a 15-year lifespan and 13,000 miles driven per year.)

Why is this so important? It’s pretty simple, really. In the United States, vehicle emissions are the largest source of carbon emissions. And the vast majority of that is due to passenger vehicles. If we as a society want to get serious about reducing our carbon footprint, the biggest changes we need to make are reducing our amount of driving, moving more people into mass transit, or switching out people’s gas-powered vehicles for electric vehicles.

The New York Times turned their work into a really nice static datagraphic. It is static, so there is no real interactivity if you want to compare your vehicle to others. However, the designers did choose some popular models and identified some of the key outliers.

There are nice annotations here that double their effort as a legend here.

The designers group the cars, represented by dots, into colour fields. These do a good job of showing how there is overlap between the different types of vehicles. Not all hybrid and plug-in vehicles are cheaper or even less CO2 emitting than some gas-powered vehicles, typically your smaller compacts and hatchbacks. Each colour field is linked to a textual annotation that also functions as a legend.

That alone is very helpful in understanding the differences, subtle and not-so-much, between the types of vehicles. Later on in the article the designers also used a scatter plot of a narrower set of data to compare a select set of vehicles.

Oh, there’s your Tesla.

Here we can see that one cannot simply assume that all electric vehicles are cheaper long-term than their gas-powered compatriots. Here we can see that the Nissan Altima, whilst emitting more CO2, compares favourably with the Tesla Model 3 in both the long-term cost but also in the upfront sticker price.

Despite finding this article a year and a half late, we can tie this to current events in that President Biden’s climate bill creates tax credits for electric vehicles. While the bill is perhaps not as significant as many would like, it is remarkable for still being a lot of money devoted to reducing our emissions. And when it comes to electric vehicles, one of the key components is the creation of tax credits. These would help mitigate those upfront sticker costs of electric vehicles. Because whilst they may generally be cheaper in the long-run, you still need to put up more money than their conventionally-powered alternatives either as lump sums or down payments. And with interest rates rising, what you need to cover via an auto loan will become more expensive.

Overall this is a really nice piece. Should I ever need to buy another vehicle, I would love to see this as a resource available to the general public. Unfortunately it only compares 2021 vehicles. And it does make me wonder where my 2005 vehicle compares. Probably not too terribly favourably.

Credit for the piece goes to Veronica Penney.

Just Keep Grinding it Out

There are certain journalism outlets that I read that consistently do a good job with information design or at least are known for it. Now I try to keep my media diet fairly large and ideologically broad, but in that there are also still some outlets that feature quality design than others. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Economist are usually probably top of my list, but you will also see the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, the Guardian, and the BBC. I also read more niche outlets for some of my interests, e.g. the Athletic for Red Sox and baseball. But these often don’t feature information design. Politico is one that I read for my political news fix. And when I was reading it whilst on holiday, I was surprised to find an article about the employment market with a really nice line chart.

The article examines the changing labour market where, for over a year now, bargaining power largely resided with employees. If employees wanted raises, benefits, perks, whatever, they could often leave their current employer if their requests weren’t met because another employer, desperate for staff, would likely meet their asks. However, as the economy cools, we would expect the labour market to tighten making few openings available. That begins to reduce the bargaining power of employees as now employers can say “take it or leave it”, knowing that the offers they make to staff aren’t likely to be met by other employers who don’t have open positions or aren’t otherwise hiring.

Four graphics punctuate the article, detailing just that changeover. The full article is worth a read, but I wanted to take a look at one graphic that I think best captures the design decisions made.

That looks like an inflection point to me.

My screenshot above doesn’t capture the interactivity, but we will return to that in a moment. We see three data series: job openings, quits, and layoffs and discharges. The designer represented each with a primary colour, making clear distinctions between the three, and since all three are represented by thousands of units, they can be plotted together. That allows one to make easy comparisons across the three series at particular moments in time, e.g. the Covid recession. My only real quibble is with that recession bar. I probably would have used a neutral colour like a light grey instead of red, because the red appears visually linked to layoffs and discharges when they really are not.

Normally when we see an interactive line chart, we have a small legend above, sometimes below, the graphic. Here, however, the labelling for the lines sit directly next to the line. This makes the display clearer for the reader who scans the data series and I’ve seen the approach often in print, but rarely for interactive work.

And when the reader mouses over the work, the highlight does a few nice things.

See what you want to see.

We can first see that the line with which the user is engaged becomes the focus: the remaining two lines recede into the background as they are greyed out. We also get a simple, but well designed text label above the cursor. Note how that behind the text there is a thin white stroke that creates visual separation between the letters and the data line. And that cursor is a small grey circle surrounding the data point, allowing you to see said data point.

Take it all together and you have a very clear and very effective interactive line chart. It’s a job well done.

When I see good work from unexpected places it’s important to call it out and highlight it because it means some design director somewhere cares enough to try and improve their publication’s quality of communication. And in an era when many outlets suffer from disinvestment and cost-cutting staff reductions that leave fewer designers, editors, and photographers on staff it is easy to imagine design quality decreasing.

So credit for this piece goes to Eleanor Mueller.

Facebook’s for the Old Folks

We start this work week with something that the young people use, but in a different way than older people do, including elder millennials like myself: social media. Of course, as an elder millennial, I remember Facebook when it was The Facebook when it expanded access to Penn State, which I attended for a single year.

Pew Research conducted a study of teenagers that revealed they use social media more than ever before, but that they use new (sort of) platforms more than the venerable paragon of the past: Facebook.

The Economist’s Data Team looked at the data and created this graphic showing the trends.

What do you use? How often?

We see stacked bar charts on the left and then a line chart on the right. The left-hand chart shows the frequency with which teenagers use various social media platforms. What I don’t understand is how someone uses a social media application “almost constantly”. But that’s probably why I’m an elder millennial.

Get off my lawn, you whippersnappers.

On the right we see the percentage of teenagers who have used an application at least once. The biggest winners? Applications primarily featuring image over text. The losers? Those that use words.

Now longtime readers know that I am not terribly fond of stacked bar charts, especially because they make comparisons between, in this case, social media platforms very difficult. And I feel like we have a story in the occasional use responses, but it’s tough teasing it out from this graphic.

On the right, well, this is one I enjoy. You can tell just how much the social media environment has evolved in the last 7–8 years because TikTok did not exist and YouTube was not thought of as a social media platform.

I wonder if different colours were truly needed for the line chart. The lines do not really overlap and there is sufficient separation that each line can be read cleanly. If the designers wanted to highlight the fall of Facebook or another story line, they could have used accent colours.

But overall a solid graphic.

Now to check my feeds.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist’s Data Team.

Cannon, Howitzers, Mortars—Oh My!

For the last two days I have been writing about the Fort Pitt Museum and some infographics, environmental graphics, diagrams, and dioramas that help explain the strategic value and thus history behind the peninsula at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. In particular, we looked at Fort Duquesne, the French attempt to fortify the position, and then Fort Pitt, the far more successful British attempt.

But a fortress without weaponry is like a snapping turtle without a sharpened beak. And once the fortifications were built, the British began moving in artillery pieces and hundreds of soldiers to defend their claim on the land. Local Native American tribes invited the British in and to station soldiers, but relations soured after a few years when it became clear the British, unlike the French, were more interested in settling the land.

In 1763, Native American discontent coalesced around Pontiac, an Ottawa warrior chief, who directed the outrage into violent actions in the western colonial lands. Pontiac’s War had begun. The British, recently victorious over the French, suffered several defeats as Native American forces took several British forts and raided settlements killing unknown numbers of settlers.

At the forks of the Ohio, local Native Americans besieged Fort Pitt. For two months, Fort Pitt was cut off from resupply and local settlers, who had poured into the fort, even took up arms. But the biggest weapons the British had were the artillery at the fortress.

Though it should be noted this was the incident during which a small smallpox outbreak occurred amongst the settlers and British military forces used smallpox infected blankets as gifts to the Native Americans. In later letters, this tactic was commended by senior British military officials. However, the efficacy of the action from a military perspective is debatable at best.

The British had three main types of artillery at their disposal: cannon, howitzers, and mortars. And if you have no idea what the differences are, no worries, because the Fort Pitt Museum has several great graphics explaining their differences and the pros and cons to each.

Get out of the way.

Above we have a diagram of a cannon. At the time cannon differentiated themselves by being relatively easier to construct and maintain. They fired solid, non-explosive projectiles at relatively flat trajectories. If you ever saw the Patriot with Mel Gibson, the scene where a gun fires a ball that then bounces through ranks of infantry and severs numerous legs, most likely that was a cannon.

The remaining two types were used for launching projectiles at higher angles, almost lobbing them up and over fortifications or enemy troop formations. Howitzers were the longer-ranged of the two and whilst broadly similar to cannon, at the time they differentiated themselves by being able to fire explosive projectiles. In other words, instead of a solid ball of iron as described above, this could explode and send shrapnel down on a larger area of massed infantry.

More ouchies.

The mortar, in that sense, is similar to the howitzer. It could send explosive shells above troops and fortifications, but it was designed to do so at high-angles. This was particularly important in counter-siege warfare when the British defenders needed ways to fire at Native American soldiers who closely approached Fort Pitt’s defensive walls.

The graphics do a great job showing just how these three types of artillery were different and could be used to different effects. The graphics don’t do too much and don’t use elaborate illustrations. They are very effective and very efficient. Well done.

Credit for the pieces goes to the Fort Pitt Museum design staff.

Fort Pitt

Yesterday I discussed some of the work at the Fort Pitt Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Specifically we looked at Fort Duquesne, the French fortification that guarded the linchpin of their colonies along the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys.

In 1753, the royal governor of Virginia dispatched a British colonial military officer, a lieutenant colonel, to demand the French withdraw from the chain of forts along the Allegheny River. The French politely refused. Undeterred, the lieutenant colonel, after returning the refusal, was sent with several dozen soldiers to push the British claim.

The lieutenant colonel discovered a French force south of present-day Pittsburgh. After largely surrounding the French force, the lieutenant colonel ordered his soldiers to open fire and in the ensuing battle the French force was destroyed by killing or capturing the vast majority of the force. That was the opening battle of the Seven Years War, a global conflict that stretched across North America, South America, Africa, India, and Asia.

The lieutenant colonel who started it all? George Washington.

At the war’s outset, Washington was involved—but did not lead—in another operation to oust the French from Fort Duquesne. This operation failed spectacularly with the death of its commander, Major General Edward Braddock. Three years later, British forces had sufficiently regrouped that they again attempted to take Fort Duquesne. After some tactical losses, the British continued to press the French. The French, seeing the vastly superior numbers of British soldiers, decided to withdraw and in blowing up their ammunition stores, destroyed Fort Duquesne.

The British, operationally commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Bouquet, a Swiss-born veteran British officer, occupied the smoldering ruins. There they proceeded to build an even larger fortification named after the British prime minister who ordered the site taken. The prime minister? William Pitt the Elder. The fort? Fort Pitt. The town that would develop around the fort? Pittsburgh.

When completed, Fort Pitt was the largest and most sophisticated British fortification west of the Appalachian Mountains. It guarded British colonial interests from both French and native forces who would have gladly retaken control of the area.

Today the Fort Pitt Museum has several diagrams and dioramas detailing what was at its completion. The photograph below is a reproduction of a diagram made in 1761 just prior to the fort’s completion of the fort and its immediate environs. Even the reproduction is itself a reproduction in that the creators used the same materials and methods as would have been used in the 18th century, lending it some of that aged quality.

To be clear, this is large at least maybe six feet wide.

And here we have a closer view of the fort itself. If you look closely to the left, nearer the forks of the Ohio, you can see the outline of the far smaller Fort Duquesne.

You can see more of the details in this shot.

But for me the amazing part was walking into the museum where you are greeted with an amazing diorama of the Fort as it appeared in 1765. You can already see the emerging town of Pittsburgh outside the fortifications.

A fortress for ants.

Credit for the original diagram goes to British military engineer Bernard Ratzer, its recreation was made by artists from the Carnegie Museum.

Credit for the diorama goes to Holiday Displays.

Diagramming and Diorama-ing Fort Duquesne

Pittsburgh exists because of the city sits at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers. As far back as the early 18th century, English and French colonists had recognised the strategic value of the site and as imperial ambitions ramped up, the French finally wrested control of the area from the English and constructed a fort to defend the forks of the Ohio. They named it Fort Du Quesne (now Fort Duquesne) after Governor-General of New France, Marquis Du Quesne.

Fort Duquesne anchored a north-south chain of French forts linking the Ohio River to Lake Erie via the Allegheny River. Since the Allegheny drains into the Ohio and not Lake Erie, the French used a navigable tributary of the Allegheny, the imaginatively named French Creek, to reach just a few miles from the fort on Lake Erie, Fort Presque Isle, from which they portaged overland to Fort Le Bœuf. From there they travelled down the river or overland via the Venango Path to Fort Machault situated at the confluence of French Creek and the Allegheny River.

This chain of forts and the control they established over the Ohio allowed the French to link their colony of New France in present day Québec along the Saint Lawrence River to their colonies along the Mississippi in the Illinois Country via Lake Erie then the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers, which feed into the Mississippi River. The Mississippi of course then empties into the Gulf of Mexico through the then French colony of Louisiana and New Orleans. Strategically this allowed the French to surround and choke the British colonies along the eastern seaboard from territory and resources west of the Appalachian Mountains.

At the site of Fort Duquesne on what is now called Point State Park, a granite stone outline of the original French fort sits in a grass field. And at the centre of the outline is a plaque diagramming the fort’s design.

The marker for the centre of Fort Duquesne

Thankfully for history lovers, the park also contains a history museum dedicated to Fort Pitt, the larger British successor fortification to Fort Duquesne. But inside, the history of Fort Pitt would be incomplete without a discussion of Fort Duquesne and that includes a nice diorama. You will note more details here, however, as the initial fort seen in the above diagram was expanded to include more area for barracks, farms, and ancillary activities like forges.

Fort Duquesne and its expansion

But even still a closer shot of the fort itself shows what the physical buildings would have looked like above and beyond a two-dimensional diagram.

Closer view of Fort Duquesne

Having been to the site, however, you can see that Fort Duquesne and the later Fort Pitt weren’t necessarily as defensible as one may think. Just to the south across the Monongahela River is a ridgeline that offers clear lines of fire into the forts. Some well positioned artillery would have made holding the forts tenuous at best. Of course hauling artillery and ammunition up to the ridge’s summit is easier said than done. Here’s a photo from the Fort Pitt Museum, whose exterior walls reconstruct one of the later Fort Pitt’s bastion walls. You can see in the background the ridge line of Mount Washington (originally named Coal Hill) stands far above the fort’s defences. Artillery could easily angle down and fire into the forts, be them either Duquesne or Pitt.

It would have been like fish in a barrel.

Credit for the marker goes to I assume the designers at the Pennsylvania State Park commission.

Credit for the dioramas goes to Holiday Displays, who created the originals in the 1960s.

Datagraphics as Marketing Materials

I spent the last two weeks out of town, and my post for the Friday before didn’t happen because there was a fire at my building—I and my unit are fine—that knocked out internet for about 24 hours. But now I have returned.

One of the things I did was visit the city of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. There I discovered the city has a World War II era submarine, the USS Reqin, a Tench-class submarine that launched at the end of the war and saw no active combat. She was later preserved and arrived at the Carnegie Science Centre in Pittsburgh where she serves as a museum ship.

USS Requin moored in the Ohio River

As I waited for the self-guided tour to begin, I spotted a small poster with some big numbers. Naturally I investigated and found it to be a marketing piece by PPG, a Pittsburgh-based paint and coatings company. The poster detailed the work that went in the preservation of the submarine’s exterior using PPG’s own paints and coatings.

The Requin as a poster

We can see the large numbers clearly and to the piece’s credit the hierarchy works. What are we talking about? Three paints applied to the submarine in these quantities in this amount of time. The only factette not totally relevant is how many tourists annually visit the submarine.

Design wise, the poster does a nice job of dividing up its space into an attention-grabbing upper-half. After all, it grabbed my attention. The lower half then subdivides into three columns that speak to the aforementioned subjects. The last column then divides again into halves.

As marketing design does, it’s not the most offensive. For example, we don’t have the gallon buckets sized or scaled differently. The designers used a restrained palette and kept a consistent typographic treatment.

Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed because I had thought it would be some facts or data about the submarine itself. But for what the piece is, I thought it did a nice job.

Credit for the piece goes to PPG’s graphics department.

We’re a Long Way from Kansas

I had something else for today, but this morning I opened the door and found my morning paper. Nothing terribly special. No massive headline. No large front-page graphic. See what I mean?

But then as I bent down to pick it up, I spotted a little tree map. But it turned out it wasn’t a tree map. It was a rectangle, largely, but it was actually a county map of Kansas. It was so small it fit within a single column.

The map showed those counties that had a majority vote in favour of keeping abortion rights. And then those counties that also voted for Trump in 2020 were outlined in orange—a good colour pairing. Turned out a number of counties did.

Without wading into the politics of it, because that’s a separate article, this was a great little map. It didn’t need to be crazy complicated or even large.

Credit for the piece goes to the New York Times graphics department.