Year of the Tornado

2011 appears to be the year of the tornado, with killer tornados roaming from Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and small towns in the deep South now to Joplin, Missouri. The latter now holds the record for being the most deadly, 117 confirmed deaths, in US-recorded history.

The New York Times, in its coverage of the aftermath—and the potential for more destruction with the forecasted weather—has mapped, charted, and animated data from the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to illustrate the totality of the devastation witnessed this year.

The piece makes use of a map to illustrate where tornados struck and then their subsequent track, relevant geographic data, and that matches that with known fatalities using the always popular area of a circle datapoints. I am less keen on these for their cross-comparable nature, but here, in this instance, that is less the focus than the overall number of deaths and their locations. Then we also have the dataset over time with the noted caveats that, one, only in 2011 are deaths linked to counties rather than tornados as in all years past and, two, that as our ability to detect and record tornados has increased, we have more data with which to work. In short, it is not necessarily true that 1953 had less tornados than 2011.

Screenshot Detailing 2011 Tornados
Screenshot Detailing 2011 Tornados

Given the severity of the current year, and this outbreak in particular, the New York Times also created a smaller, but by no means lesser, piece to highlight just those tornados striking the Southeast. This piece maps the tornados by touchdown, date, and time. Omitted is data on fatalities or damage. However, this piece complements the larger, broader view of the above by breaking down the 2011 year, thus far, into increments of days. This is a great complementary piece that, by being separate from the first piece, allows each to shine in its own respective area.

The Outbreak of 27 April
The Outbreak of 27 April

Credit to this second piece goes to Archie Tse, Matt Ericson, and Alan McLean.

(Insert 1/1000 Airplane Jokes Here)

Airlines merge. (As do many other companies, but those companies are not the focus of this post.) And often the mergers are complex. Lamentably, one cannot simply merge logos and be done. Here is looking at you, UAL Corporation (United Air Lines) + Continental Airlines Inc.= United Continental Holdings Co.—not that I particularly care for the United Continental logo mashup, I miss the Saul Bass logo for United.

Unfortunately there are things to worry about like getting planes to fly, not crash into each other, not to mention ticketing, unions, general technology…one hopefully gets the idea.

But for those of you who do not, an article in the New York Times about the merger of Delta and Northwest includes a graphic about the master guide to the whole process. Note the use of sticky pad paper. Each piece represents one project, with projects containing as many as a thousand separate tasks.

Merger Process Wall
Merger Process Wall

RMS Titanic, 99 Years Ago

99 years ago today, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic with more than 2/3 of the over 2200 passengers losing their lives. The ship was rather state-of-the-art and was considered remarkably safe with more lifeboats than was legally required for the passengers and crew. She also had a number of watertight bulkheads that could contain flooding and keep the ship afloat even if a remarkable total of four such compartments were flooded.

TItanic Cut Away Where the Berg Hit
TItanic Cut Away Where the Berg Hit

But as we all know, the iceberg, frigid water, and brittle steel combined to flood not four, but six compartments. And while more than legally sufficient, the number of lifeboats and passenger space was insufficient to save all the passengers. This illustration, by G.F. Morrell details how floating catamaran deck rafts could have saved lives.

Proposed Change to Ship Design
Proposed Change to Ship Design

All photos from Life.

Shutting Down Nuclear Reactors

Japan has updated the the threat level from the Fukushima Plant from five to seven. And while everyone ought to put Fukushima into context, chiefly by looking at the damage facing the rest of the country, we can also see that, broadly, things worked as expected at the power plant. They just did not build the plant to survive the 48ft-high tsunami waves and 9.0 earthquakes that happen perhaps once every thousand years. Very poor planning indeed.

This is an older, albeit by a few weeks, graphic from the New York Times explaining how a reactor is ‘shut down’ and then, failing that, what a meltdown is. And most importantly, how the meltdown of a modern reactor design is far different from that at Chernobyl.

Shutting Down a Nuclear Reactor
Shutting Down a Nuclear Reactor

Credit for the piece to Xaquín G.V., Bill Marsh, Dylan McClain, and Graham Roberts.

Japanese Radiation in Perspective

Japan continues to deal with damage from the earthquake and its subsequent tsunami. Yet, much of the news that seems to come out of Japan focuses on the leak of radioactive materials from the Fukushima power station. Certainly that is a story, but is it more important than the tens of thousands of people missing and presumably dead?

The New York Times printed a graphic on Saturday that details the danger from the radiation at the plant, near the plant, across Japan, and then across the rest of the world.

Radiation Graphic Reduced
Radiation Graphic Reduced

And largely, if you live in the United States, you have no reason to fear the radiation leak. In general, unless you maybe live near the plant, you have no reason to fear the radiation leak.

Overall, it communicates its message clearly and adds nice detail in the bottom third of the graphic about whatever spread of radiation there has been.

Credit for the graphic goes to Joe Burgess, Amanda Cox, Sergio Peçanha, Amy Schoenfeld and Archie Tse.

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.

Charging the Flux Capacitor: No Lightning Required.

My co-worker, Ben, who is far more knowledgable about cars than myself, brought the following to my attention.

At the Consumer Electronics Show we always get to see the latest in cool, new, must-have toys. This year, however, a company called Fulton Innovations displayed a proof-of-concept, wireless charging-station for electric vehicles. And while one must wonder about the conservation and inefficiencies of such a powering station, Fulton provided information on just how efficient their system would be. In the form of graphics.

Car Charger Graphics
Car Charger Graphics

And by and large, they are not bad. Yes, yes, the pie charts could be substituted for something else. But, I do like linking the colours in the pie chart to the parts in the power-system located in the diagram of the car. They help to explain just where exactly the inefficiencies in the system are to be found. And by providing the base of the plugged-in car, they also allow one to compare the two methods of wireless charging to that of plugging the vehicle in.

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.

Thomas the Tank Engine, Meet Señor Jose AVE

This comes from an older article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, but it is new to me. Anyway, it looks at a proposal for high-speed rail in the United States, specifically along the Northeast Corridor, the Washington to Boston route that includes Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, and New York. Anyway, go figure that we still have trains that run at a snail’s pace, even Acela has a low average-speed.

Comparing Routes and Modes of Travel
Comparing Routes and Modes of Travel

A proposal from a group out of Penn makes for an interesting debate, specifically in Philly a real high-speed route would require boring underneath most of Philadelphia to bypass 30th Street. Perhaps revitalising Market East—depending on how exactly the route would interact with the commuter tunnel currently in place.

The graphics are simple, basically an annotated map. But the variations in stroke weight and colour help bring contrast to the routes when looking at the entire proposal whereas the proposed route in Philadelphia has little overlap and could have made due with a single stroke. Another interesting piece is beneath in the comparison between travel times from Washington to Philadelphia, from Philly to New York, and New York to Boston. Without looking at cost—thought the article’s second page or graphics does that—we can clearly see that a dedicated high-speed rail system would make it even easier to travel between cities for short holidays or even day trips. Let alone business trips.

If Kites Could Fly to the Future, What Would They Find?

If only Benjamin could see this…

The Control Room
The Control Room

These are photographs from a small series published by CNET that focuses on a power grid control room. As one can imagine, managing the flow of electrical energy across somewhere the size of New England could be a bit…complicated. And so one can see from some kind of network map (perhaps?) on the main display. At the very least I can make no sense of it.

Voltage Map (right) and Monitor of Neighbouring Power Grid (left)
Voltage Map (center) and Monitor of Neighbouring Power Grid (left)

On the other hand, I only wonder what would happen if Homer were sitting behind a bank of those monitors?

Photographs by Martin LaMonica, CNET