Muddled Maps

Last weekend, I saw the spectacular film Helvetica, which, as you might expect, discusses the infamous typeface. But the film delves deeply into the history and motivations for design over the last several decades, and it provides some thought-provoking glimpses into the minds and attitudes of several major designers.

Browsing the Helvetica website, I came across a clip of Vignelli showing remarkable disconnect from reality as he discusses the 1972 subway map (a section of which is replicated above, although the entire map is online, too). It’s amazing how he can’t perceive the practical failures of his design…

(A friend pointed out that these comments are a little difficult to understand out of context. So, to clarify, here’s a current map of the New York City subway system. Not the tangle of lines around Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn; those become incomprehensible in Vignelli’s version.)

As usual, I see this somewhat in the context of the theme of the “What’s Viz?” PowerPoint I give occasionally. When we forget the reason for which we design something, the results can utterly fail us. When astronomers attempt to communicate with broad audiences using a visual language intended for their peers, problems develop. And when designers allow aesthetics to trump function, subway riders get confused.

Anyway, I know this ain’t sci viz per se, but it’s on my mind…

BTW, the Helvetica site also links to an entry on Design Observer about the map, and although the author seems not to disagree with me, he chooses his words a bit more kindly. You can also reada blog entry that talks a little bit more about the London Underground map that inspired Vignelli, which links to the original 1933 map designed by Harry Beck.

Independently, I also ran across a fellow at Columbia University who has created his own Vignelli-inspired version of the MTA, and it’s current! Use at your own risk.

The Duelity of Nature

Thanks to a post on my friend David’s blog, I just ran across Duelity. It tells two creation stories—one from Genesis, one from modern science—using contradictory visuals and verbiage.

The introduction to the site hints at the conceit:

“According to the records of the General Organization of Development labs [GOD] it took a mere six days to manufacture a fully-operational universe, complete with day, night, flora and fauna, and installing Adam as its manager to oversee daily functions on Earth.

“If thou shalt believe the Book of Darwin, [’tis] five billion years after The Big Bang that we behold what the cosmos hath begat: the magma, the terra firma, the creeping beaste, and mankind, whose dolorous and chaotic evolution begat the gift of consciousness. ”

You get the idea. What I find interesting is that the approach is mirrored not just in the language used but also in the imagery that tells the stories. The General Organization of Development flick uses the visual language of a corporate training video, while the Book of Darwin employs an illustration style that recalls renaissance prints and stained glass. Brilliant stuff, really, and particularly impressive when viewed side-by-side, with the separate narratives intertwined.

I would say that I kind of object to the final tag line, though: “Duelity is a split-screen animation that tells both sides of the story of Earth’s origins in a dizzying and provocative journey through the history and language that marks human thought.” “Both sides”? As if there were only two…

Mars versus HTML

  

What started out as an impassioned diatribe turns out to be a mere complaint about HTML…

I get press releases in my email. They have URLs. I follow those URLs and (once in a while) end up writing about the press releases on my blog. So, this morning, I received “ESA: Mars Express watches a dust storm engulf Mars,” which pointed me to a page on the ESA site that featured the three images above, inset at different points in the article, and described (from left to right) as, “a dust storm on Mars,” “temperatures in the Martian atmosphere,” and “Mars – thermal radiation spectra.” I clicked on the wee pictures, hoping to be linked to something—nada—and looked for a link to a page of graphics that might offer some explanation—nada y nada y nada.

My ire began to build. That’s an artist’s conception of a dust storm, not an actual image! It should be labelled as such! And those graphs, lacking any axes, any interpretation? Argh! Then I noticed the URL. “SEMPWD361AF_index_2.html”? Hmmm. I changed the “2” to a ”1,” and lo and behold,… A whole page about the images.

Then I remembered the typical ESA page-naming scheme. I changed the “1” to a ”0” and found exactly what I expected in the first place.

So what can I say now? Other than recommend the email notices include the top-level ”index_0.html” link? Well, I think the caption for the animated dust storm should clearly say “artist’s rendition.” And the abscissas in the temperature plot should match. Otherwise, I guess I just have to get started with my day…

Trailing APOD

I’m not the biggest fan of the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), but today’s post is pretty kewl. What you see above is a time-lapse image of the sky (well, actually, 477 30-second exposures taken over a period of 4.3 hours) that reveals the apparent motion of the stars that results from Earth’s rotation. I’ve never seen a wide-angle image that shows the celestial equator crossing directly across the image: thus, the star trails in the upper left and lower right appear to arc in different directions. Neato.

The image was taken (and is copyrighted) by Koen van Gorp.

Antarctic Mysteries

An article in today’s New York Times describes new websites from NASA and from USGS, showing high-resolution imagery of Antarctica. Check it out now before it all melts away!

I have some quibbles with the operation of the USGS site (the Java applet behaves a little oddly, provides effectively no information about the location displayed, and shows a map of Antarctica surrounded entirely with white), but it holds promise. And the NASA site has some spiffy stuff…

The image above comes from the “Antarctic Mysteries” game, which presents several unidentified photos for the viewer to identify. As a “game,” well, it’s not the most compelling, but I imagine I’m not the only person who looks at the grid of pictures, wonders what such-and-such might be, then clicks on the link to find out. Abstract and unusual, the images seem quite compelling.

What I truly admire, however, is the little extra info that the site provides about each image. For example, the feature above is about 25 kilometers across, located at 79°S, 80°W. Even better, the description includes a note: “This image appears darker than bright white snow because it has been enhanced to make slight contrasts in the snow more visible.” Excellent! Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? One itsy-bitsy little extra line of text? Good work, NASA!

New Mexico Sun Stories

Tee hee. My friend David Beining sent me a link to this image with the subject “Sci Viz New Mexico Style.” It come from a blog entry on Duke City Fix about sunlight reflected off a shaving mirror buring streaks into a wooden wall (a daily event, and the two gaps represent cloudy days). It recollects another New Mexico treasure, the Sun Dagger at Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon.

As usual, David’s offhand email got me to looking online for, well, something to link to about the Sun Dagger (e.g., the above). I came across the Exploratorium interactive (part of their much larger site about the site), and I have to say that, except for the annoying spinning zia symbol, it’s quite good. The U.C. Berkeley-based Traditions of the Sun also offers a great introduction to the archeoastronomy of Chaco Canyon. We Bay Area folk have Nuevo México down pat!

The Solstice Project interactive model also looks interesting, but I can’t play with it…

Anyway, from shaving mirrors to ancient archaeological sites, the sun plays an important role in our lives. As long as it doesn’t burn our house down, I suppose.

2,3 Turing Machine Type 1,2

The above image comes from Stephen Wolfram’s blog announcing proof of the simplest universal Turing machine. Believe me, I’m not about to describe a Turing machine, but I will happily describe my utter confusion when seeing the image. It initially reminded me of a Sierpinski Triangle, but obviously, something else is going on, and there’s no explanation to help! In my typical, touchy way, I got annoyed at this silly little picture, lacking any caption or descriptive text, presented as some kind of straightforward statement of the problem and its solution. Grrr…

Then I started trying to figure it out. I’ve previously blogged about the Mathematica Player and Wolfram Demonstration Project, and indeed, there’s a similar (actually, mathematically identical) example of a Turing machine in the collection. That discovery clarifies things somewhat, and yet another actually makes it quite comprehensible. In fact, reading the “New Kind of Science” prize from Wolfram’s blog, it became obvious to me that Wolfram (at least, maybe others, for all I know) has a visual shorthand that he uses in describing Turing machines—and that Mathematica evidently uses in displaying them. And I then realized that I had gotten in a huff a little hastily.

Allow me to extol a bit of personal pedagogy. In general (as I’ve mentioned in my “What Is Viz?” presentation), I divide science visualization into three basic types: 1) communication with oneself, 2) communication with a peer group, and 3) communication with public audiences. In typical astronomer parlance, I will refer to these as Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3 visualizations. In this blog, I most often comment on Type 3 visualizations (those addressed to a broad audience), and I initially mistook the above image for that type.

But it’s not. Instead, I think Wolfram has devised a Type 1 visualization of the Turing machine that, thanks to Wolfram’s influence, has transitioned to a Type 2. Presumably, there’s some small audience of “peers” out there for whom the above makes plenty of sense—perhaps they can even extract useful information from it.

Back to Jupiter

I know that I just blogged about the Jovian magnetosphere, but here I go again. And it’s another press release from SwRI, of all things. There’s a lot going on in this diagram! First off, kudos on getting the dipole to look right, but then things get a little confusing…

The profusion of orbit lines and magnetic field lines (or tubes, I guess, if I look at the high-resolution version of the image) might make sense to a well-informed viewer, but they seem confusing for the uninitiated. I’m also wondering why the faint structure that connects the moon Io to Jupiter, which indicates ionized gases trapped in Jupiter’s magnetic field, doesn’t actually follow a magnetic field line. Yeah, they got the dipole bit correct, but then garbled the message! And the Io torus, which also looks somewhat tubular in this depiction, doesn’t seem to lie in the same plane as the orbit lines. All very odd.

Here’s the image caption, BTW: “About [one] ton of volcanic gases are spewed out by Jupiter’s moon Io every second. When ionized, these gases become trapped in Jupiter’s strong magnetic field (shown in blue) and form a vast ring (shown in red) around the planet with Jupiter’s 10-hour spin period. Jupiter’s strong magnetic, rapid rotation and Io’s prodigious source of material result in a giant magnetosphere whose dynamics are very different from the Earth.” Not such a bad explanation, really, although it helps to know that the ionized material rotates along with Jupiter’s 10-hour period, whereas Io orbits more slowly, so the stuff gets smeared out along the length of the moon’s orbit.

If you’re interested in a bit more on the topic, you can also check out an actual image of the Io torus and even see its rotation with Jupiter (the latter page actually has a much better description of the torus than the above as well). Um, did I mention I almost did a Master’s project looking at the Io torus…?