31 December 2009

Looking back on 2009

Usually in the last days of December I read old journal entries to relive some of the highlights of the year – and I did this year, and that was great. But then I realized that flipping through the pictures I've taken would be a lot more colorful (literally) and fun to look at. I went through some huge changes in 2009, and as it turns out, I filled up 50 pages documenting parts of it on Flickr. Here's the year in pictures:

2009 Retrospective
[captions & indiv links here]

And some highlights...

EFIT - 16.26

Ideeën New York – Autumn Winter 2009



Then out comes the sugar.

Have a safe and happy 2010 everyone. See you next year!

17 December 2009

Nothingness in space

This one is for the space and science geeks. My friend David (we met on an AOL message board in the mid-90s, he was Musictopia and I was Angelynx, oh god I just admitted that) sent me a series of text messages this morning that made my head hurt. See if you guys can help:

So, it's impossible for actual nothingness to exist, right? Everything is something? Question: In the vacuum of space where large areas contain only a handful of particles far apart from each other, what is in between them? We can't say nothing, right? "Nothing" can't take up space. Right? So in a vast area of space you may only have a few particles and a lot of "???" Is it really completely empty? Nothing?

[img src]

I'm sure Wolfram Alpha can help somewhat, but I'm curious to hear people's explanations.

12 December 2009

From daydreaming to Avatar

I just read an article in Wired called Second Coming, which tells the story of how James Cameron's new movie Avatar came to be. It covers daydreaming about it in 1977 all the way to today (the movie comes out next Friday 18th). The article explains why Cameron seemed to disappear completely after Titanic came out (we haven't seen anything from him in 12 years): he wanted the alien world and its characters to be so realistic that he actually waited for technology to catch up with his visions. Hardware was also behind – a camera that excelled in shooting in both 2D and 3D filming didn't exist yet. He flew all the way to Tokyo with a partner to pitch a new camera technology of this caliber to Sony, and they agreed to produce it. Then he had to convince the movie theatre industry to upgrade theatres all over the country to support screening this new filming technology. It goes on and on, and ends with Fox giving Cameron $250 million for the project. My favorite parts were on the last page, and talked about the excruciating detail that went into dreaming up this fantasy planet called Pandora:
He started by hiring USC linguistic expert Paul Frommer to invent an entirely new language for the Na’vi, the blue-skinned natives of Pandora. Frommer came on board in August 2005 and began by asking Cameron what he wanted the language to sound like? Did he want clicks and guttural sounds or something involving varying tones? To narrow the options, Frommer turned on a microphone and recorded a handful of samples for Cameron.

The director liked ejective consonants, a popping utterance that vaguely resembles choking. Frommer locked down a “sound palette” and started developing the language’s basic grammatical structure. Cameron had opinions on whether the modifier in a compound word should come first or last (first) and helped establish a rule regarding the nature of nouns. It took months to create the grammar alone. “He’s a very intense guy,” Frommer says. “He didn’t just tell me to build a language from scratch. He actually wanted to discuss points of grammar.”
Amazing. Check out this mini "making-of" clip:

Here's some stuff about the planet's plant ecosystem:
[...] Cameron hired Jodie Holt, chair of UC Riverside’s botany and plant sciences department, to write detailed scientific descriptions of dozens of plants he had created. She spent five weeks explaining how the flora of Pandora could glow with bioluminescence and have magnetic properties. When she was done, Cameron helped arrange the entries into a formal taxonomy.
WOW. I would love to hang out with someone with such an insane imagination and tenacious attention to detail. This is just the tip of the iceberg, too – Cameron even had Pandora's atmospheric density calculated. Are you going to see this movie? I'm not that big on this type of science fiction, but I might have to be now.

06 December 2009

Nightingale x healthcare x visualizing data

Some of you have seen this already:

It's a dynamic visualization that GE put together with Ben Fry and Seed Media to show the costs associated with different chronic illnesses. It's a Processing file, so I recommend heading over to The cost of getting sick to play around with it a little.

When I brought this partnership up with my friend Mike this week, he pointed me toward this:

Here's where stuff gets amazing: that was hand-drawn in 1858 by Florence Nightingale. Eighteen fifty-eight. EIGHTEEN. fifty-eight. Mike went on to tell me that in addition to being a nurse, Nightingale was a pretty brilliant statistician. She actually invented this kind of chart (it's called a polar area diagram). Wow!! Here is part of it in a little more detail:

It shows the causes of death in military hospitals during this time:
The area of each coloured wedge, measured from the centre as a common point, is in proportion to the statistic it represents. The blue outer wedges represent the deaths from: preventable or mitigable zymotic diseases, or in other words contagious diseases such as cholera and typhus. The central red wedges show the deaths from wounds. The black wedges in between represent deaths from all other causes. Deaths in the British field hospitals reached a peak during January 1855, when 2,761 soldiers died of contagious diseases, 83 from wounds and 324 from other causes making a total of 3,168. The army's average manpower for that month was 32,393. Using this information, Nightingale computed a mortality rate of 1,174 per 10,000 with 1,023 per 10,000 being from zymotic diseases. If this rate had continued, and troops had not been replaced frequently, then disease alone would have killed the entire British army in the Crimea.
The way this chart came about began with how Nightingale saw hospitals being run. Conditions were unsanitary (to put it lightly), and she wanted to see reform in the entire hospital system. Being a woman during this time made it pretty hard to get heard, so she decided to observe and write down the causes of death she was exposed to over a period of time through her own record-keeping system to see if she could make a convincing case for reform. Eventually she had amounted so much data that she was seeing patterns in (too many deaths that could have been prevented, essentially (the blue wedges)) that she did some calculations and finally did have a solid case. In brief, that mortality rates could decrease if some changes were made within city and military hospitals.

Nightingale needed a concise way to present this data and clearly make her point, so she told its story visually through the polar area chart to ensure that non-statisticians (public officials, in this case) could understand it. The rest of the story is pretty storybook: Her wishes for a formal investigation were granted in May 1857 and led to the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army. Nightingale hid herself from public attention, and became concerned for the army stationed in India. In 1858, for her contributions to army and hospital statistics Nightingale became the first woman to be elected to be a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. [src]

Everyone around me has been nerding out on telling compelling stories from heaps of numbers for a while now, and it was pretty great to find this (eighteen. fifty. eight.) and learn about one of the earliest processes and motivations behind graphical representations of statistics. Neat, huh?

Thanks Mike :]

02 December 2009

Laura Strangelove on buses

Laura is in the process of getting a Masters in City Planning with a focus on Transit. She's been into it for years, and has a soft spot for buses in particular. We recently realized that Urban Planning and Digital Strategy have so much in common that we're able to send each other articles, stories and links all the time that sit at the intersection of our respective interests.

Speaking of, Laura recently forwarded me a paper she wrote, and I found it so fascinating that I got her permission to post huge chunks of it here. It's called

Positive Public Perception of Bus Rapid Transit
as Dependent on How Unlike Conventional Bus Riding it Is
Or: How to Stop Worrying and Love the Bus

and talks about just that – a fairly new type of bus transit that could elevate people's general opinions of bus transit.
The bus is generally considered to be the most loathed form of public transportation. People, as a whole, do not like to ride the bus. A google search for “I love buses” turns up 217,000 results. A google search for “I hate buses” turns up 2,890,000 results. (...) Our culture’s hatred of buses even sneaks its way into our idioms—of late, to “throw [someone] under the bus” is a phrase that means to sacrifice another person for personal gain, even though throwing someone under a train or into the whirling propellers of a helicopter would almost surely result in more gruesome consequences.

To be fair, the bus has rightly earned some of its criticism. There is a plethora of reasons people do not like buses, and while all of them are not present all of the time, some of them are present most of the time. Buses can be unreliable and late, and when they do show up, they sometimes show up in pairs, or more insultingly, in groups of five. Waiting for a bus at a conventional pole-and-sign stop can be a cold, wet, and even dangerous adventure. A bus ride on a heavily-trafficked corridor with many stops is slow and lurching. Hardly any transit mode in the world can be considered more unpleasant than a standing-up ride on an overcrowded bus while carrying six shopping bags or an infant.
Enter Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). It's still a bus, but it's operationally different in a lot of ways. For one, dedicated rights-of-way: buses get their own lanes. One result of this is that they are seen as a unique form of transportation, rather than another vehicle sharing the road with everyone else. Dedicated bus lanes are also a lot more efficient (more on this soon).

images of current & proposed BRT systems in St. Petersburg, Florida; Changzhou, China; and Hamilton, Ontario

Another popular feature of BRT is pre-boarding fare collection: everybody pays (or swipes their card) ahead of time, like in the subway. When the bus arrives, everyone is "ready" and can board at once. Also results in more efficiency. Dedicated rights-of-way and pre-boarding fare collection reduce the likelihood of bus bunching, which is one of the most frustrating things in the universe.
Bus bunching occurs when one bus, due to traffic, a late start, or any other reason, is a little behind schedule, and as a result, arrives at each stop to see more people than usual waiting to board. Because it takes longer to board more people, the bus arrives at each subsequent stop more and more behind schedule. Meanwhile, the bus behind it—the next bus running the route—does not have a large number of passengers to pick up because any of those passengers who were early enough to be there when the earlier bus came by in all its lateness boarded it instead. By the end of the route, the second (or, when it’s really bad, third, fourth, or fifth[!]) bus will have caught up with the first bus, and the bus arrives very late and in multiple.
There are other factors that can set BRT apart from regular bus transit as well, to get commuters over the psychological barrier against them. The buses themselves look different, the stations are more sleekly designed (sometimes with modern logos and bright color schemes) and are built to accommodate pre-boarding fare collection. Here's an example from the RIT in Curitiba, Brazil, one of the most successful BRT systems in the world:

image from Wikimedia

A tubular station! That beats standing by a pole in the rain any day.

Does New York need this? Well, the MTA has dabbled in it with their Select Bus Service (SBS), which has a very limited run (bet you don't know where it is). Since the NYC subway system is so advanced & gets you almost anywhere you need to go, Laura sees the SBS as "an example of BRT used in the context of merely making bus service vastly superior" rather than its own, unique form of transportation.

In short, BRT is good for pulling buses out of their perceptual dead zones: the more they resemble – and are seen on par with – rail systems, the more psychologically accepted they will be, and the more passengers the system will attract. Of course it's not all shiny wonderfulness; Laura plays devil's advocate and raises some great questions (including cases of induced demand, which isn't always necessarily a "good" thing). She also writes about how BRT is so characteristically (and operationally) different from buses that people have even talked about removing the "B" from the system:
It is as though people are known to hate buses so deeply and thoroughly that the only way to trick them into riding one—even if it’s a bus with none of the problems of a conventional bus—is to disguise it with an Orwellian name change, a la 1984: But the Ministry of Love is still where people get tortured, and “Commuter Rapid Transit” is still, technically, a bus.
I recently spotted a PSFK article about the MTA investing further in more efficient bus transit, but the link seems to be dead (see? a sad, dead link). I did find This MTA page on their SBS Project that explains BRT really well, and explains how they envision BRT fitting into New York's transit system in the future. Exciting! Maybe it'll turn bus riding reluctance in NY around?

You're not alone, James.
tweet by James

There is a chance that I may have butchered some of Laura's reasoning, as I just tried condensing 18 pages into a single post in just an evening. Stay tuned for edits, as (and if) she corrects me. Thanks, Laura!
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