We are all fallible

I don’t want to gloat over other people’s mistakes. But I can’t help but having a warm fuzzy feeling every time I spot a mistake in a graphic made by one of the major newspapers. It is a comforting reminder that people working for the global big shots like the The Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, etc., are just like the rest of us.


Here’s what I found from The Times on Wednesday this week (June 19 2013), on page 41. This Business section story talks about global shipping business and its challenges. The graphic offers a combination of information including a map of core maritime shipping routes. They have decided to include bottlenecks along the routes.

Oresund2I can’t comment on the accuracy of the number data. But one very simple thing was evident to me. Øresund is definitely not in Finland! 😀 It’s a strait between Sweden and Denmark.

You might say that naturally the big players are capable of making mistakes too, it’s kind of self-evident! But it is so common to forget that simple truth and think that we “little people” from smaller countries and in smaller companies are somehow categorically different. People belittle themselves and often justify their mistakes by exaggerating the difference. “After all, we are not The Times or something,” is a common phrase.

Also, in my experience, most students have a very glamorised image of people in the big companies. They tend to put them on a pedestal. Now, I don’t mind putting people on pedestals if they earn it. But just because someone happens to be working for Company X is not enough in itself.

Many also seem to hold a view that if you keep climbing from company to company, then one day you will be in a place that is perfect. When you reach that candy mountain, you will have all the resources you have ever wished for. And you’re not going to make any mistakes anymore! 🙂

*ahem* …or you finally reach that university where bureaucracy and organisational idiocy is not going to screw up your work all the time, and the people are actually intelligent and open minded… *ahem*

People are people. No matter where they are and who they work for. And also companies are always imperfect. In the end, it’s not about finding the “golden company”, but finding the one which offers you the best compromise between benefits and responsibilities. And that will always be subjective.

Charts instead of tables please

When you are trying to get a point across using numbers, show us the point, don’t make us calculate and compare! Again it’s time to talk about the Visuals That Should Have Been There.

Yet another great reading experience which suffers from flaws in the way information is presented visually. Brian McNair’s book News and Journalism in the UK has provided me a sober and easy starting point to the inner life of British journalism.

I especially enjoyed the way McNair introduces the various sociological schools of journalism research. I think that chapter would benefit not only journalism students but also generally all students of design or communication etc. who are trying to wrap their heads around concepts like Marxist media criticism, social construction of reality, the dumbing-down of culture and so on.

My only problem lies in the tables the book contains. The 4th edition (Routledge, 2003) that I got from my library has 8 tables and I think all of them could have been made into bar charts. Or at least turn the most important numbers in them to charts. And from what I can see from the Amazon preview, the problem remains in the 5th edition.

Some of the information is so simple, that the tables are pretty sufficient. Like the one on newspaper ownership (image below). It’s ordered mostly from the biggest to the smallest and the numbers are relatively small and easy to grasp. Nevertheless, adding a chart would make it even better.

But where I really noticed the problem was where McNair makes a point through comparing numbers in a table. It’s not a major point in the book, and if you’re feeling bored you can just skip the table take McNair’s word for it. He talks about how John Birt affected BBC’s news production and popularity in the nineties:

In terms of ratings ‘Birtian’ journalism certainly appeared to make a positive impact on the British viewing public. By late 1989, for example, the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News was on occasion recording audiences of 12 million, as compared to 6 million for ITN’s News at Ten, a pattern of dominance that was repeated across the news schedule, though not usually in such stark form (see Table 5.1.). (page 107)

So, check out the table yourself (below). See how easy it is to see how the “pattern of dominance is repeated across the schedule”.

Did you get it immediately? I didn’t. Yes, of course I did get it in time. But it’s such an easy point, that when I finally did, I felt kind of cheated or bothered. “Why did I have to spend so much time and effort on such an elementary point?!” How much time did you spend on it?

Perhaps you glanced it quickly hoping to return to the text. But when it didn’t make sense immediately, you had to devote a few more glances to it. And perhaps you also had to do a kind of mental switch from understanding text, contexts and the society, to understanding abstract numbers.

There are several ways you can turn that table into a chart. The solution depends on what one wishes to emphasise, space & color constraints etc. I thought that the point was to show that the BBC’s programmes were dominating in all the different time slots, such as main news, early evening news, midday news and so on. Below you can see one solution I might propose. This version omits the precise numbers but who needs them anyway? What the reader needs here is the point that BBC’s news programmes are doing better than ITN’s, and he or she can still approximate the numbers from the bars if necessary.1

This should be in McNair 2003, page 107

Okay, in this particular case “much time and effort wasted” is relative and actually not that much. It’s not like you’re trying to understand Wittgenstein or the national budget. We are talking about few glances, a handful of seconds.

Never mind the actual time it took in seconds. What I’m talking about is that feeling you get. That even if it was not really a big effort, you are annoyed that you had to do a little more than you felt was justified or necessary.

And that’s the key point in all design. Think about badly designed handles, mugs, chairs, doors, windows. Whatever. It might be an insignificant door knob or other invaluable mundane object. But you are reminded of its clumsiness each time you touch it. It might slightly irritate you each time. Perhaps several times every day.2

And that clumsiness and irritation drags your thoughts from whatever important thing you had in your mind – your job, your children, your ongoing relationship crisis, your happiness – demanding your attention to the silly mundane object.

Design is about minimising the effort of the user. Making the user feel comfortable. That’s what some fields of design call usability, ergonomics, etc. And here we can call it information design.3

In a book the designer is bound to a two-dimensional surface. But he or she still has a vast amount of resources which can be used to maximise the usability of the page and thus minimising the effort and irritation of the reader.4

  1. I would also like to change the headline, but here I’ve kept the original one for consistency. I mean, who’s interested in “figures”?! The variable is the “audience” or “viewers”. The figures themselves are just abstract entities used to express their quantity. []
  2. This is why the difference between pc:s and Macs & iPads is so significant. If I have to use a computer constantly it should be as painless as possible, and not raise my blood pressure every 30 minutes. []
  3. Some might call it graphic design, but I’m not using it because all too often that seems to lead to worsening the usability because it tries to be expressive or artistic. Information design always aims to maximise the usability and clarity. []
  4. And don’t try saying that “maybe they didn’t have a designer”. It’s a book you’re holding. How do you think it materialised. Out of thin air? []

Trending catastrophe music

Are certain songs trending because people connect them mentally to recent news? If we look at the music statistics can we find a kind of soundtrack to the current world events?

Please note, this post was designed to be enjoyed with a soundtrack. So before reading further, I suggest pressing play on the video below. There’s nothing to watch, just leave it playing in the background. (All the links on this page should automatically open to new windows without interrupting the song. Edit: Now the video finally works, sorry for the confusion.)

My personal soundtrack for this week has included a lot of Kraftwerk and especially their classic song Radioaktivität (in the clip above). At some point I realised that it was nicely thematically tied to the ongoing Fukushima incident. I wondered if other people had made the same connection. So I went on to Last.fm to see how much it had been played recently.

And yes, I was right. The news do seem to affect people’s listening behaviour. As you can see from the graph below, the song has clearly been played more after the Fukushima incident begun. I guess it’s suitably bleak and melancholic. Also the later version of the song is openly critical about nuclear power, listing infamous radiation incidents and saying “stop radioactivity”.

The graph displays how many times the song has been played by last.fm users.

This made me wonder if people had been inspired to play other songs dealing with radioactivity and nuclear power. I made a couple of searches on Last.fm.

Kate Bush’s Breathing is about nuclear war. Some interpret it to be about a baby still in the womb when the bombs go off. Or it could be about the fact that you can’t stop breathing the air which carries radiation. It might also have something to do with bombs sucking all the oxygen from the air. In any case, one has to love lines such as “After the blast / Chips of Plutonium / Are twinkling in every lung”. As we can see from the small spike in the plays, the song has been fairly more popular with the gloomy news.

Are you a fan of the game Fallout? Then you’ll love The Radiation Song by The Aquabats. A fairly recent song and not that well known. There’s a small spike but if you look at the history it’s really not significant.

Uranium Rock by Warren Smith. A more classic rock song. Thematically it’s connected to mining uranium. It’s more of an upbeat worker song and not really about radioactivity. Perhaps this and its optimism make it unsuitable for catastrophes as its popularity seems to have declined after the tsunami.

Radioactive by Gene Simmons doesn’t really have anything do to with nuclear radiation. Similarly to Uranium Rock, its popularity seems to to have suffered from the Fukushima. Might people feel that now is not the time to tie radioactivity to coarse hard rock innuendos?

It would be interesting to build a website or a software which would track the latest news and then find semantically connected songs from services like Last.fm. It could find out automatically which songs are trending because of the current news. This would give us a kind of shared soundtrack to the news.

PS. If you got exited about songs related to radiation, nuclear war etc. (who wouldn’t!?), there’s plenty of them out there. Especially from the 1980s. Depending on your tastes you could try these examples:

  • Bruce Springsteen: Roulette
    – Thematically closest to Fukushima as it’s about the Three Mile Island accident.
  • Nena: 99 Luftballons
    – Balloons trigger nuclear war by accident.
  • Data: Fallout and Armageddon
    – Especially the first one is a catchy tune to remember when “it’s a fallout / better run for shelter / put yourself in a fallout suit”.
  • Duran Duran: Playing With Uranium
    – Sounds like a love song, but apparently it’s about David Hahn’s homemade nuclear reactor.
  • Tears For Fears: Famous Last Words
    – A love song for when you’re cuddling together in the ruins, puking your intestines dying from radiation poisoning. (A bit weird combination of emotions even for me.)
  • Love Like Blood: Lethal Radiation
    – Critical song about nuclear power, “we still got no solutions / while the nuclear waste still grows”.
  • Ozzy Osbourne: Thank God for the Bomb and Killer of Giants
    – Ozzy is critically grateful to the bomb as it just might keep people from starting a world war. And Killer of Giants is about the madness of the whole device.
  • Megadeth: Rust in Peace… Polaris
    – On nuclear war using ballistic Polaris missiles, “Bomb shelters filled to the brim / Survival such a silly whim”.