Radiation…Tastes Like Metallic Tang

It is a mad, mad world out there these days and I suppose this is the point at which we all begin to run around shouting that the sky is falling. Despite all the madness in Libya, the constitutional referendum  in Egypt, the protests in Syria, the election in Haiti, and the president’s overseas trip to Brazil we still have the aftermath of the Sendai earthquake and the subsequent Pacific tsunami. The latter being particularly important because of the damage to the now infamous Fukushima Daiichi nuclear generating station in northeastern Japan.

Fukushima will likely be up there with the three other major nuclear disasters of a power station variety: the Windscale Fire in Cumbria, England; Three Mile Island outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and of course, Chernobyl in the Ukraine (then the Soviet Union). We sometimes have heard the media compare Fukushima as the next great nuclear disaster, but how bad has it really been?

This graphic by XKCD comes to me via my coworker, Brian Morgan, and it breaks down our average exposure to ionising radiation—the bad stuff—from nuclear accidents from Chernobyl to Fukushima to x-ray machines to the natural radioactivity in the soil. Yes, you are likely being irradiated as you read this post.

A cropping of a radiation dose chart
A cropping of a radiation dose chart

Radiation is bad. But we will all find better solutions to problems if we keep our fears both in proportion and in check. Fukushima is not good. But it is far, far from the end of the world.

Having Your (Presidential Birthday) Cake and Eating It Too

Presidents’ Day originally celebrated the birthday of George Washington, the first president of the United States. (Though, one could get crazy and say it was actually Samuel Huntington, but I fear I would digress.) Now technically the holiday still does celebrate Washington as the official name of the federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday, but by and large we group folks like Lincoln in there too.

Regardless of who exactly is remembered, we remember a United States of the 18th and 19th centuries. And thus it seems appropriate to share a piece from Charles Blow over at the New York Times.

United States' Ranking
United States' Ranking

The information graphic is a heat chart of various rankings and index numbers that compare the United States across various metrics to the rest of the world’s “advanced economies”, as decided by the IMF. I certainly have some issues with a few of the metrics, for example what exactly does Gallup mean by percentage of people thriving? And are the math and science scales out of 600 total points? I presume as much but cannot be certain. These could have briefly explained in the footer, or similar to how the food insecurity metric is handled—though I suspect that would be too much from an aesthetic standpoint. The use of drop shadows, from a design perspective, I disagree with; the dark crimson should surely be enough distinction to stand alone. And for completeness, I would have included what appears to be the beigish middle ground between the best and the worst in the scale at the top of the piece.

As to the story the piece supports, I leave that for the audience to decide. Is the United States of the President Obama/Bush as great as that of President Washington/Adams?

If Money Grew on Trees…

I would have become an arborist…alas, I am a mere designer in a world where trees shed leaves, not cash. The government, on the other hand, now that sheds a lot of cash.

President Obama released his budget proposal for 2012, proposal because the responsibility actually falls to the House of Representatives to pass spending bills and budgets. The New York Times, crediting Shan Carter and Amanda Cox, has put together a nice little interactive piece explaining the proposal. (It would be rather interesting to see if they compare the proposal to the passed budget, whenever that happens.)

Cropping of the US Budget for 2012 (Proposed)
Cropping of the US Budget for 2012 (Proposed)

From one side of the aisle we hear arguments about how we must cut spending from things like education and infrastructure while the other side pushes back. However, what this piece does quite nicely is allow the user to isolate mandatory spending. That is, we see that if we really wanted to cut spending, we would need to look at reforming Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and then cutting the Defense Department budget. At last, something on which we see bipartisan agreement, reforming and cutting those budgets is too tough (read likely to cost representatives, senators, and presidents their jobs) and so they are left alone. But, I digress.

Furthermore, the piece adds the change in spending since 2010 for the various programs by way of greens and reds. While certainly not necessary—one could argue that the inclusion of such data makes a sometimes difficult chart type that much more difficult—I think that in this case the additional data is more than worthwhile. This year’s theme seems to be austerity and that means cuts. So while highlighting, say, the massive portion of government spending that is Medicare, Medicaid, and the US military we can also highlight that much of all that spending is still rising.

Fast and Shiny Trains

This is another comparison of high-speed lines and how woefully inadequate American infrastructure is in this particular department. The graphic comes via the Chicago Tribune in support of this article, wherein the outgoing mayor states the need for a high-speed line to link downtown Chicago to O’Hare International Airport. Apparently his desire for such speedy transit was inspired by his trip to Shanghai, where the Chinese have had a magnetically-levitated (maglev) train connecting the airport to the city for a few years. It’s fast. (Though as the article makes a point to call out, the Shanghai train does not stop in downtown Shanghai, but rather the city’s edges where travelers then link up with a more conventional train to reach downtown.)

Chart Comparing Rail Maximum Speeds
Chart Comparing Rail Maximum Speeds

The chart is nice because it breaks down the types of trains into categories based upon speed, and in the area of interest, namely high-speed, the express section is broken out in detail with the several main types of high-speed trains described. Of course these are all maximum speeds and I would be curious to see a comparison of average operating speeds. For example, while Acela is billed as fast, it frequently operates well below maximum speeds because of its route—the Northeast Corridor was not designed for trains running at such high speeds all those years ago.

At the bottom is a comparison of the overall length of the Blue Line, the Chicago route that connects the Loop (downtown) to O’Hare, to the distance needed to accelerate and decelerate a high-speed train to its maximum speed. Overall, I think the plan sounds like a glossing over of other deficiencies in the Chicago mass transit network for the sake of shiny new toys for (outgoing) mayoral boys.

Midwestern Shrinkage

Charting the Rise and Fall of the Midwestern Congressional Delegation
Charting the Rise and Fall of the Midwestern Congressional Delegation

The United States was founded on the East Coast as English (and the odd Scottish) colonies with the old cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. These first colonies became the original 13 states. Ever since the 18th century, we have expanded westward into the Ohio Territory, the Northwest Territory, French colonies, Spanish colonies turned Mexico, and then again the British in the Pacific Northwest. (Overly simplified history of the United States’ growth, but it shall do.)

Every ten years, the United States is constitutionally obligated to hold a census. You cannot elect representatives to make political decisions for you if you do not know how many of you there are and where you live. But what these decennial censuses show are how the demographics of the United States have changed, with the population shifting from the East Coast, once almost 100% of the population, to the lands south and west. It’s only natural when you consider how unpopulated that part of the continent is.

But, because we rely on these censuses to redraw political districts and boundaries, every ten years politicians make much ado about…well, something. This article by the New York Times looks at how these changes are set to affect the Midwest in particular and this graphic, while simple, charts the congressional power of the Midwest through the total number of seats held in Congress over the years.

Growing Pains

An information graphic looking at obesity in the United States
An information graphic looking at obesity in the United States

This piece comes from my coworker, Ben, who found the graphic in Scientific American. Broadly speaking the piece is looking at the obese and the overweight in the United States, comparing the numbers of both children and adults in 1980 to 2008. These numbers are supplemented by the risk of death posed to both men and women from a few different causes. (I know at least diabetes is linked to weight, but as to whether the others are linked I am unaware.)

I have a few quibbles with the piece; for in general I think educating the public about the health risks of obesity a worthy endeavour. From a more scientific-ish point of view, as I recall, BMI (body mass index) is not a particularly useful tool in determining obesity because it fails to differentiate people who are heavy with fat from those who are heavy with muscles. A strong and regular weight-lifter is not necessarily overweight, but simply has a lot of muscles. Does that make the weight-lifter less healthy than those with lots of body fat? Methinks not.

From the data side, I am curious to know why only the two years? It may very well be that they are the only two years for which relevant data exists. But I doubt that. 1980 compared to 2008 is interesting, but perhaps already well-known. What would perhaps be more interesting is whether over the past few years, the increasing attention paid to weight and other health issues has begun to affect the growth of the obesity problem—poor pun very much intended.

The accompanying text makes a point about the number of adult Americans being obese. Certainly the dots as a percentage of the population achieve that goal of showing percents—though I hasten to add that their arrangement around the body in the centre does very little to aid in comparing the adults of 1980 to 2000 let alone the children. And as to the children, the article points out that they are growing fastest. At this, however, I can only take the authors at their word for the graphic does nothing to visualise this statement. Perhaps they outgrew the adults—but then the adults were themselves at one point children, but that is another matter—but their growth could now be slowing as a recent turn of events. But since we only have two years, we cannot know for certain.

The risk of death by [type of death] is interesting. But running bar charts as more of a radial chart could become a bit confusing. Is there any reason the bars grow in width as they extend further out? Or was that part of an all-too-obvious play on the problem. After all, the growth in area could be significant; a simple line of constant stroke to a point along the radial distance markers would have sufficed. And then I would be particularly curious to know whether any of these types of death are related to obesity. Neither the article nor the graphic provide any clues besides whatever knowledge the viewer brings to the table. (Okay, I think I am done with the puns.) And if one happens across the article with almost no knowledge of what diseases or medical conditions are caused by obesity, how does the graphic tie into the cost of healthcare costs brought upon the country by obesity.

Overall, I think the graphic is well-intentioned. The public is becoming more accustomed to seeing data visualised. However, we need to make certain that we are communicating clearly by making datapoints easier to compare. (Looking at things across half of a circle is a bit tricky.) And then we need to make certain that the data we are visualising supports our statements. (Are children really the fastest growing? Over what span of time?) And then take the time to explain to the audience those things that may not be common knowledge. Does that mean dumb a piece down to the lowest common denominator of someone who has absolutely no knowledge? No. Design needs to elevate and educate its audience. Perhaps some of the finer details remain unexplained because of sheer complexity, but when amidst a host of details well-understood, that confounding bit may push an unsure viewer to do some additional research and educate him- or herself about the subject matter. And that, surely, is not a bad thing.

It’s the Economy Stew-pot.

Oh Cal Richards…

But anyways, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research—the people who declare when recessions and such begin and end—the recession that began in December 2007 ended in June 2009. Good news of a sort. And so naturally the press covered it, including the Wall Street Journal.

They included this image:

Three Charts of the Recession as Compared to Earlier Recessions
Three Charts of the Recession as Compared to Earlier Recessions

One, the drop shadows are unnecessary and the giant diamonds hide the actual turning point. The former could be eliminated and therefore allow the line to have greater, crisper detail as the colour should be enough to differentiate the lines. The drop shadow just sort of blurs everything together. The diamond could either be smaller or simply denoted on the timeline and thus allow the entirety of the line to be shown.

What I do appreciate, however, is that the first two charts show the same timeline and therefore allow for an easy comparison of the GDP turnaround to the jobs turnaround. And as one can see, while the recession has ended, if this most recent one is to follow in the paths of its predecessors, jobs will be a long time in returning to pre-recessionary levels.