Building the Wall

Or at least a portion that was already funded back in March. If it was, in fact, a wall.

This morning it appears as if President Trump will not scupper the funding agreement. It includes far less than the $5.7 billion he demanded, but do not forget back in March, Congress appropriated funds to construct barriers, not walls in Texas.

This piece from the Washington Post looks at those plans and details how wall-like or not these border installations are. (Spoiler: semi.) The screenshot below illustrates the levee fencing would work.

Whatever happened to "Tear down this wall"?
Whatever happened to “Tear down this wall”?

But the piece also includes some really nice maps and aerial shots, also seen above, of where these border enhancements will be constructed.

Overall it is just a really informative and enjoyable piece with several graphical elements.

But whether this is a wall, I will leave that up to you.

Credit for the piece goes to Laris Karklis and Tim Meko.

Walnut Pancakes in Space

One of the really neat things about space exploration has been the New Horizons probe that raced past Pluto, giving us the image of the now famous heart shape on the dwarf planet. But as it raced past a Kuiper Belt object named Ultima Thule on New Year’s, we received some tantalising first images of a snowman in space. Basically, two spheroid bodies fused together like a snowman or a peanut.

Except it’s not.

It probably doesn't taste like a walnut pancake, though…
It probably doesn’t taste like a walnut pancake, though…

This is a fascinating graphic produced by the science research teams that show how the latest downloaded photographs from New Horizons—it will take many more months for the full set—show Ultima Thule is not very snowman-like in its shape. Instead, it is far flatter and more, in their words, shaped like a dented walnut and a pancake.

The article has some additional material that show how that spin axis changes the view. They are short videos, but if you are interested in space things, it is neat to see. We are accustomed to seeing spherical objects in orbit around the sun. Not pancakes.

Credit for the piece goes to NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Southwest Research Institute.

Arctic Chill

The Arctic air mass that has frozen the Midwest continues to spread and so today will be a tad chilly in Philadelphia. Yesterday, however, the Guardian had a piece that used data from NASA to show how the air masses over the Northern Hemisphere have been disturbed by unusually warm air.

The Arctic plunge.
The Arctic plunge.

One theory to how this all works is that the reduced polar sea ice means water absorbs summer heat instead of being locked in the ice. But then that heat is basically released come winter. (I’m oversimplifying this.) That warms the air, which disturbs the polar vortex. As the Guardian then explains, the destabilised air mass can wobble and spill some of its frigid air down into the lower latitudes. (It takes a little while because the polar vortex is in the upper atmosphere and the air needs to sink to the ground.)

Point is, bundle up and stay warm.

Credit for the piece goes to the Guardian graphics department.

The Atom

We made it to the end of the week, everyone. And that is worth celebrating. Today’s post is for all the scientists out there and anyone who has ever been interested in the atom. You know, the little things that make up matter. xkcd put together a chronological history of several different models of the atom that attempt to explain its structure.

I have to love that 538 model.
I have to love that 538 model.

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

What’s Next, Brexit?

A no confidence vote on Theresa May’s government, that’s what.

For those not familiar with parliamentary democracies, basically a no confidence vote is held when a substantial number of members of parliament have just that, no confidence, in the government of the day. The legislative body then votes and if the government wins, the government stays in power. If the government loses, typically, though not always, a new election is held to create a distribution of seats—it’s thought—that will yield a government that can hold the confidence. (There really is not an analogy for this in the US government that I can think of.)

To be fair, nobody really expects May’s government to collapse this afternoon. The Tories and her Democratic Unionist Party (a small Northern Irish party supporting the government) do not want to hold new elections nor do they want to give the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, the chance to form his own government as much as they might despise May and her Brexit deal. So in all likelihood May survives by a dozen or so votes. On the other hand, the result yesterday was surprising in its scale, so could twenty or so of the 118 Tories who voted no vote against May? Possibly.

So then what next? Thankfully the Guardian put together two calendars showing just what happens and, crucially, in the context of how much time remains until the UK crashes out of the EU.

In case she wins, as we expect.

It still doesn't leave a lot of time to figure out what to do.
It still doesn’t leave a lot of time to figure out what to do.

If she loses, which is possible, but unlikely.

The UK would have even less time in this scenario.
The UK would have even less time in this scenario.

The key thing to note is that the election campaign would eat up most of the time left and leave the UK very little time to do anything but ask the EU for an extension.

These are two small, but really nicely done graphics.

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

The Brexit Deal Vote

Today’s (one of) the day(s). For those of you who haven’t followed Brexit, the British Parliament will vote this evening on whether to accept the deal Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the European Union…or not. And if not, well, the government now only has three—instead of the original 21—days to figure out a Plan B.

Of course this vote is only happening today because the government punted back in December when it was clear they were going to suffer a substantial loss. And back then, the BBC prepared this article about Brexit, where it was and where it was going. Funny thing is, after a month, not much has changed.

The screenshot below is of the process. As I noted above, the most critical change is that the government no longer has 21 business days to figure out what’s next. So instead of, to use the American football phrase, running out the clock, May will have to come up with something and present it to Parliament before 29 March, the day the UK leaves by statute.

How neat and orderly it must all seem…
How neat and orderly it must all seem…

I think the thing missing from the graphic is the chaos that happens if the deal is rejected. And while that may have been far from clearly the most obvious result two and a half years ago, it is now. And Parliament is scheduled to start voting around 19.00 GMT, or 14.00 EST for those of us on the East Coast or 13.00 CST for those of you in the Midwest.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

New Plans for Old Subways

The New Yorkers among my readers know about the whole planned shutdown of the L train for repairs owing to Hurricane Sandy (tangentially mentioned in the graphic I commented upon yesterday). For those of you who don’t know, basically the salt water from the storm seriously damaged the tunnels and a whole lot of work needs to be done to repair them. The plan was that a segment of the line would be shut down, to no obvious insignificance to commuters along the route, and it would reopen in a year and a half.

Then the state governor realised that might be bad optics and since he controls the agency running the New York subway system, he cancelled the shutdown so engineers can look at a different type of design.

I love pieces like this one from the New York Times. They are not crazy and wide-ranging, instead we have illustrations to compare the plans. They do a really nice job complementing the story without overwhelming it.

The proposed design
The proposed design

Plus, I’m a sucker for train and infrastructure stories.

Credit for the piece goes to Anjali Singhvi and Mika Gröndahl.

Pulling Gene-ies Out of Bottles

I don’t always get to share more illustrative diagrams that explain things, but that’s what we have today from the Economist. It illustrated the concept of a gene drive by which a gene modified in one chromosome then modifies the remaining chromosome to insert itself there. Consequently it stands an almost 100% chance of being passed onto the subsequent generation.

Naturally this means great things for removing, say, mosquito-born diseases from populations as the gene drives can be used to ultimately eliminate the population. But of course, should we be doing this? Regardless, we have a graphic from the Economist.

I still find them a pest…
I still find them a pest…

It makes nice use of a small mosquito icon to show how engineered mosquitos can take over the population from wild-type. The graphic does a nice job showing the generational effect with the light blue wild-type disappearing. But I wonder if more could not be said about the actual gene drive itself. Of course, it could be that they simplified the process substantially to make it accessible to the audience.

Credit for the piece goes the Economist graphics department.

The Saudi Assassination Squad

Yesterday we looked at the importance of arms deals from the US and UK to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the brutal murder and assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who sometimes wrote critically of the Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) regime. But what about the actual murder itself? What do we know?

Well at some point today, President Erdogan of Turkey will give a speech, just prior to the opening of the big Saudi conference the Saudis have branded the Davos of the Desert. In Erdogan’s speech, he is expected to reveal even more of the details of the murder as collected by Turkish intelligence services. But as this story has been unfolding, the Washington Post has been collecting the details about the alleged 15-person assassination squad.

The entire piece is worth reading. It provides great detail and walks the reader through how the story was pieced together. And relevant to my blog it makes use of some nice data visualisation and design elements, including this graphic.

A few too many coincidences in this story…
A few too many coincidences in this story…

It captures some of the arrivals and departures of six of the men identified. The graphic also notes that sometimes people will not be documented because they arrive on diplomatic flights instead of commercial flights.

As for the rest, the Post used photographic evidence to show how one of the individuals was likely a bodyguard or in the security services for MBS. Phone records and the photographic records of Turkish border control were also used. Taken together, it paints a damning portrait of the supposedly modernising MBS regime.

Of course now we can only wait to see what Erdogan has to say this morning.

Credit for the piece goes to Aaron C. Davis, Aaron Williams and Jason Bernert.

My Family Shrub?

One of the main objectives of my long weekend in Boston is to research my family history. Usually when you do that kind of research you see familiar visualisation forms: trees. And in this book on a New England ancestral family, I saw trees. But the problem is history is never as neat and clean as we would prefer it to be. Or at least as I would prefer it to be. And this is the tree I discovered for my ancestor George, the guy labelled N-1.

People need to stop naming their kids the same old names. It can make my research a pain in the arse.
People need to stop naming their kids the same old names. It can make my research a pain in the arse.

Normally family trees are direct lines of descent. But here the problem is that the current research cannot clearly state who the parents are of George. He can be one of two Georges, one the son of Francis and Tabitha and the other of Timothy and Elizabeth. So instead of a single trunk, we have more of a shrub-like set of parallel branches with lots of leaves.

But what I really liked about this graphic is that, one, it appears to have been made by being typeset on a typewriter instead of some fancy design software (the book was printed in 1984). And then for the researcher like me, the author took care to remove the names of people inconsequential for this particular line of enquiry. It shows the Georges of interest, including the known cousin labelled as C-1, and their parents but omits siblings. It is a very nice touch. (And made my life easier.)

Credit for the piece goes to Henry L. Bunker.