A Day in the Life of Benjamin Franklin

Earlier this week I was researching something for my day job that prompted me to look through an 1820 city directory for Philadelphia. Whilst looking for my information I came upon this graphic depicting how Ben Franklin advised people divide their time during the day.

But when do I check my e-mails?

Notably, this is all done in 1820, and so the typesetters used metal type, not graphics in our present-day sense, to create this. Although, that does leave room for a few issues of where these breaks actually occur. But overall this is remarkably similar to a day in the life in, well let’s just say January 2020 in the before times. An eight-hour work day with an hour’s break for lunch. And then four hours to yourself in the evening. Seven hours of sleep and then three hours to yourself in the morning.

Of course in the pre-electricity era, you can see how these times are focused around, you know, daylight. No lingering at the pub until well after midnight. It’s also notable how the emphasis on dining is at noon, not in the evening as we tend to do today.

Whilst this is billed as Franklin’s advice on how to structure your time, it should be pointed out that by 1820, Franklin had been dead just over 30 years. But that’s just one generation’s time removed.

Enjoy your weekend, everyone.

Credit for the piece goes to I’m guessing the book’s printers, McCarty and Davis.

Biden’s English Ancestry

We all know Joe Biden as the Irish American president. And that’s no malarkey. But, go back far enough in your family tree and you may find some interesting ancestry and ethnic origins and that’s no different with Joe Biden. Keep in mind that our number of ancestors doubles every generation. You have four grandparents, and many of us met most of them. But you had eight great-grandparents. How many of those did you know? And you had 16 great-great-grandparents, you likely didn’t know any of them personally. It becomes pretty easy for an ethnic line to sneak into your ancestry.

And in Biden’s case it may well be English. Although sneaking in is probably a stretch, as this BBC article points out, because his patrilineal line, i.e. his father’s father’s father’s, &c., is likely English. Of course back in the day the Irish and the English mixing would have been unconscionable, at least as my grandmother would have described it. And so it’s easy to see how the exact origins of family lines are quietly forgotten. But that’s why we have genealogists.

The article eschews the traditional family tree graphic and instead uses only two charts. The first is a simple timeline of Biden’s direct ancestors.

Biden’s patrilineal timeline

No, it’s no family tree, but timelines are a critical tool used by genealogists because at its core, genealogy is all about time and place. And a timeline has got one of those two facets covered.

Timelines help visualise stories in chronological order. I cannot tell you the number of family trees I have seen where people who create trees casually simply copy and paste data without scrutiny. Children born well after the deaths of parents are common. Or children born to parents in their 50s or 60s—perhaps not strictly impossible, but certainly highly irregular. And so to see Biden’s ancestors plotted out chronologically is a common graphic for those who do any work in genealogy, which my regular readers know is my hobby.

That alone would make the article worth sharing. Because, I enjoyed that graphic. I probably would have created a separate line for the birthplace of each individual, but I quibble.

However, we have another graphic that’s not so great. And once again with the BBC I’m talking about axis lines.

American ethnic origins

Here we have a chart looking at US ancestry as claimed in the US censuses of 1980 and 2000. But we do not have any vertical lines making it easy for readers to accurately compare the lengths of the various bars. Twice lately I’ve posted about axis lines and the BBC. Third time’s the charm?

We can also look at using these not as bars, but as line charts as I did in this re-imagining to the right.

First, we no longer need two distinct colours, though you could argue the English line should be a highlight or call out colour given its role in the article. Instead each line receives a label at the right and only the English line crosses any other, but given their point-to-point slope, it’s not confusing like a line chart with all years between 1980 and 2000 could be.

Secondly, the slope here of the line reinforces the idea of falling population numbers. The bar chart also shows this, but through a leftward movement in bars. The bar option certainly works and there’s nothing wrong with it, but these lines offer a more intuitive concept of falling numbers.

I also added some clarification to the data definition. These lines represent the number of people who reported at least one ethnic ancestry—at the time US census respondents could enter upwards of two. For myself, as an example, I could have entered Irish and Carpatho-Rusyn. But my own small sliver of English ancestry would have been left off the list.

Ultimately, the declining numbers of responses along with some reporting on self-identification points to the disappearing concepts of “Irish American” or “English American” as many increasingly see themselves as simply White Americans. But that’s a story for another day.

In the meantime, we have Joe Biden, the Irish American president, with a small bit of English ancestry. Those interested in the genealogy, the article also includes some nice photos of baptismal records and marriage records. It’s an interesting read, though I’m hungry for more as it’s a very light duty pass.

Credit for the BBC pieces goes to the BBC graphics department.

Credit for my reimagination is mine.

Party Time Post-Vaccine

If all goes according to plan, your author today will receive his first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, the Pfizer variety for the curious. As such, it feels appropriate to share this recent piece from xkcd.

Also looks like some funky bar chord notation.

All joking aside, it should be said that, and as this graphic illustrates, just because you receive your first dose, doesn’t mean you should be out socialising and seeing people later that night.

You are not fully vaccinated until two weeks after your second dose, or the first if you received Johnson & Johnson. And so while I may be receiving my first dose this afternoon, it is going to be close to a month and a half before I’m able to leave my household unit and socialise with others. Probably three weeks for my second dose and then another two weeks for the vaccine to fully take effect.

Doesn’t mean I won’t be counting the days, though.

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Too Much Horsing Around

Last week the Philadelphia Inquirer published an investigation of the staggering number of horse deaths in Pennsylvania’s race track facilities. I found the article fascinating, but admittedly at a point or two a wee bit squeamish when the author described how horses essentially die. Then about halfway through the article I ran into the first of two graphics looking at the data.

Seeing red…

The first is pretty simple, a timeline of deaths over the course of one year, 2019. Overall it works, you can clearly see clusters of racing deaths, but that those clusters spread across the year. When I sat with the graphic for a moment, however, a few things began to stick out at me. The first was a distracting vibration in the background. Not the alternating beige and blue of the months, but if you look closely you’ll see tightly spaced lines within the colour fields: presumably the days of the month for aligning the deaths.

On a large enough graphic it makes all the sense to tick off sub-monthly increments, but in this space I would have probably opted to show only the months. Maybe weeks could have worked, as that approach may have reinforced the statistic about a horse dying every six days on average.

The second point is the black stroke or outline of each dot. Here the designer faces a challenging constraint. Essentially, the smaller the dot (or the symbol) the brighter the colour. In a rich, blood red colour you have a dark heavier colour. Compare that to say a stop sign that is bright red. It has a lighter feel. The blood red colour, in a given space, has let’s say an amount of black ink or pixels—I’m simplifying here—mixed in with the red. But in a large area, there’s enough red ink or pixels to still be clearly blood red. The stop sign red has no other colours but red. And in large areas, it can be an eye-stabbing amount of red—precisely why it’s likely so useful for, you know, stop signs.

But at the small scale of these very small dots, you still proportionally have the same amount of red and black ink, but with fewer and fewer amounts, the eye can begin to experience difficulty in truly reading the colour for what it is. For example, in an area of say 49 pixels (7×7), while the ratio of red to black may be consistent, you still only have a total of 49 pixels with which to convey “red” to the reader. Consequently, in smaller spaces, you may find that designers sometimes opt for brighter colours, a la stop sign red, than they would in larger fields of colour.

Here we have a nice use of brighter red, green, and yellow. (I will quickly add that the choice of red and green can be problematic for colour blindness, but I don’t want to revisit that here.) But to provide better separation between those small, circle sized fields of colour a border probably helps. A thin black line, or stroke, makes sense. But the black is darker than the colours themselves, thus it can draw more attention than the colour fill. And that begins to happen here. I wonder if a thin white stroke may have been less distracting and placed more emphasis on the fill colours.

As I said, overall a really nice if not sobering graphic in an important but disturbing article. I think a few small tweaks could really bring the graphic over the finish line. Pun fully intended. Sorry, not sorry.

Credit for the pieces goes to John Duchneskie.

500,000 Deaths

The United States surpassed 500,000 deaths from Covid-19. On Sunday, in advance of that sobering statistic, the New York Times published a front-page graphic that dominated the layout.

Sunday front page for the New York Times

Usually a front-page graphic will make use of the four-colour process and present richly coloured graphics. This, however, starkly lays out the timeline of deaths in the United States in black and white.

Meaningful graphics do not need to reinvent the wheel. This takes each life lost as a black dot and then, starting at the top in February, plots each day.

Detail of the graphic

The colour here serves as the annotation. The red circle drawing attention to the first reported death. And down the side the tick marks for days. Red lines indicate 50,000 death increments. The labels tell the story, we’ve needed fewer and fewer days to reach each subsequent 50,000 milestone.

As the first wave intensifies in March and April, the space fills with black dots. But as we enter summer and deaths fell, the space lightens. Late autumn and winter bring more death and you can see clearly towards the bottom of the chart, as we approach today, the graphic is nearly solid black.

If we want to look towards a hopeful point in the content, we can see first that it took 17 days then 15 to reach 400,00 deaths and 450,000 deaths, respectively. But it took 19 days to reach 500,000. As a nation we appear to finally be on the downward slope of this wave.

Returning to the piece, it’s a gut punch of simplicity in design.

Credit for the piece goes to Lazaro Gambio, Lauren Leatherby, Bill Marsh, and Andrew Sondern.

Armistice Day

Yesterday was Armistice Day, a bank holiday hence the lack of posting. So I spent a few hours yesterday looking at my ancestors to see who participated in World War I. It turned out that on my paternal side, my one great-grandfather was too old and the other was both the right age and signed up for the draft, but was not selected.

And so the only two that served were my maternal great-grandfathers. One served a few months in the naval reserve towards the end of the war. My other great-grandfather served for a year, a good chunk of it in France. This I largely knew from my great aunt, who had told us stories about how he had told her about blowing up bridges they had just built to prevent Germans from capturing them. And then how after the war he served as military police, arresting drunk American soldiers in France. But I had never realised some of the documents I had collected told more of the skeletal structure like units and ranks. Consequently, I decided to make this graphic.

All the timelines
All the timelines

Credit for the piece goes to me.


Next week I am heading west. And by west I mean Austin, Texas. I mean you could argue that Austin is more south than west, but if you throw a “×” in there you get South × Southwest. Anyway, the allure of the western remains strong and that reminded me of an old xkcd piece reflecting on the relative length of the western period vs. the “west” in American culture.

Still not a fan of either…
Still not a fan of either…

It’s kind of like how M*A*S*H lasted far longer than the actual Korean War.

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

From Frying Pan to the Fires of a War Zone

Moving away from climate change now, we turn to the lovely land of Afghanistan. While the Trump administration continues to negotiate with the Taliban in hopes of ending the war, the war continues to go worse for Afghanistan, its government, and its allies, including the United States.

It is true that US and NATO ally deaths are down since the withdraw of combat troops in 2014. But, violence and sheer deaths are significantly up. And as this article from the Economist points out, the deaths in Afghanistan are now worse than they are in Syria.

The beginning of the article uses a timeline to chart the history of Afghan conflicts as well as the GDP and number of deaths. And it is a fascinating chart in its own right. But I wanted to share this, a small multiples featuring graphic looking at the geographic spread of deaths throughout the country.

Getting hotter (because red obviously means heat)
Getting hotter (because red obviously means heat)

It does a nice job by chunking Afghanistan into discrete areas shaped as hexagons and bins deaths into those areas. All the while, the shape remains roughly that of Afghanistan with the Hindu Kush mountain range in particular overlaid. (Though, I am not sure why it is made darker in the 2003–04 map.)

To highlight particular cities or areas, hexagons are outlined to draw attention to the population centres of interest. But overall, the rise in violence and deaths is clear and unmistakable. And it has spread from what was once pockets in the south to the whole of the country that isn’t mountains or deserts.

Tamerlane would be proud.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist graphics department.

Hotter Muggier Faster

Last week we looked at a few posts that showed the future impact of climate change at both a global and US-level scale. In the midst of last week and those articles, the Washington Post looked backwards at the past century or so to identify how quickly the US has changed. Spoiler: some places are already significantly warmer than they have been. Spoiler two: the Northeast is one such place.

The piece is a larger and more narrative article using examples and anecdotes to make its point. But it does contain several key graphics. The first is a big map that shows how temperature has changed since 1895.

The Southeast is an anomaly, but its warming has accelerated since the 1960s
The Southeast is an anomaly, but its warming has accelerated since the 1960s

The map does what it has to and is nothing particularly fancy or groundbreaking—see what I did there?—in design. But it is clear and communicates effectively the dramatic shifts in particular regions.

The more interesting part, along with what we looked at last week, is the ability to choose a particular county and see how it has trended since 1895 and compare that to the baseline, US-level average. Naturally, some counties have been warming faster, others slower. Philadelphia County, the entirety of the city, has warmed more than the US average, but thankfully less than the Northeast average as the article points out.

This ain't so good
This ain’t so good

But, not to leave out Chicago as I did last week, Cook County, Illinois is right on line with the US average.

Nor is this, but it's average
Nor is this, but it’s average

But the big cities on the West Coast look very unattractive.

Tinseltown is out of the question
Tinseltown is out of the question

The interactive piece does a nice job clearly focusing the user’s attention on the long run average through the coloured lines instead of focusing attention on the yearly deviations, which can vary significantly from year to year.

And for those Americans who are not familiar with Celsius, one degree Celsius equals approximately 1.8º Fahrenheit.

Overall this is a solid piece that continues to show just what future generations are going to have to fix.

Credit for the piece goes to Steven Mufson, Chris Mooney, Juliet Eilperin, John Muyskens, and Salwan Georges.

It’s like M*A*S*H That Way

Happy Friday, all. Welcome to the end of the week. Today is just a little post from xkcd looking at the time span of the Wild West compared to the genre of the Wild West. The genre has lasted longer than the historical era. Kind of like how the television show M*A*S*H lasted far longer than the actual Korean War in which it was set.

Manifest destiny?
Manifest destiny?

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.