Posts by Mark
Liner notes, jazz, and an early morning with BBC

Scaled in Miles was recently featured on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. The show’s producers had an interest in the role of album covers from the days of 12″ LP’s, and their counterparts in the digital age.

When I was a kid, I would often contemplate the twelve square inches of cover art (or more) while listening to my favorite albums. As I got older and my tastes shifted towards jazz, reading the liner notes provided helpful hooks for finding new artists, and described the historical context of what I was hearing. With digital streaming, you don’t get that large artifact to read, hold, and ponder. What can be done to rekindle that experience?

It was in that context that we were contacted by Bernard Achampong of the BBC to see if we might be interested in discussing Scaled in Miles on the radio. In his view, our piece is like a set of liner notes for an artist’s entire career, as it shows all his collaborations and how they link to key recordings. Since we were scheduled to be live on air for a morning segment, James and I gathered at my house at 4:00 in the morning for the interview. Alas, the spot was so quick that James’s dulcet voice did not have a chance to grace the British airwaves, though his moral support was invaluable.

Our segment was paired with artist Matthew Cooper, whose most recent project doubles down on the power of printed album sleeves. Using innovations in printing technology, each individual album cover features unique artwork. Having spent some time staring at Mr. Cooper’s work in the past, I was disappointed that we didn’t have time to talk with him on air.

You can check out the entire episode on BBC Radio 4’s podcast (we go on around the 02:23:20 mark), or listen to just our segment here.


Even tempered, or just?

I had some early experience with the problems of a well-tempered scale. Within a few months of learning guitar, it seemed some chords just didn’t sound good unless the guitar was tuned especially for them. This got me interested in the way harmonies and scales are constructed from pitches and frequencies.

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 6.17.37 PM
Pitch fever allows you to visually compare the frequencies used in different tunings, and then hear the difference. On bottom is an octave divided into even sixths with a just intonation scale above it. The dots and bars show which notes are currently playing, and their combined waveform is shown at the top.

Briefly, harmonies are groups of notes that sound good together, and they are often based on simple fractions. Scales can be built with simple fractions too, by either applying the math to a single root note, or by repeatedly using the same fraction. However, scales built from the repeated fraction (called “just intonation”) end up with combinations where the notes collide and don’t sound as nice.

A well-tempered scale solves this problem by using a single rule for every interval between notes. This compromises the purity of the harmony, but avoids the nastiest collisions of just intonation.

But what does a well-tempered scale really sound like? I’ve heard various recordings using both kinds of scales, but didn’t have a feel for how bad the dissonances could get with just intonation, or how far away an even-tempered interval could be from a true harmony. I was curious about how simple fractions build into scales, and also wanted to know the fractions that are not used.

To answer these questions, we now have pitch fever. It’s a little HTML5 tool that explores the fundamentals of harmony while comparing some basic scales and the tunings behind them.

Miles of Data

Exactly 69 years ago today, on April 24, 1945, a young trumpet player named Miles Dewey Davis got the chance of a lifetime. He had recently left his native East St. Louis for New York City, and at only seventeen years old, he was playing alongside the legendary Charlie Parker. On this day, he was heading into the recording studio for the first time. Perhaps he wasn’t quite up to the task: in his first recordings, Miles’ playing comes across as tentative, especially when compared to Parker’s confident saxophone. But Miles soon found his voice, and over the next forty five years, his vision pushed him into uncharted territory and repeatedly redefined the scope of jazz.

May 27, 1957 Columbia 30th Street Studios, NYC

But Miles Davis didn’t do it alone. At every step of his career he surrounded himself with wonderfully talented musicians who were innovators in their own right. Gil Evans’ arrangements helped drive the birth of cool jazz and supported Miles’ orchestral explorations of the late 1950s. John Coltrane recorded his groundbreaking album Giant Steps only a few weeks after performing on Miles’ Kind of Blue, the best selling jazz album of all time. And in the 1960s and 70s, Miles was backed by players who would become the vanguard of ’70s jazz-rock fusion, including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and John McLaughlin.

In fact, there are too many talented musicians to name, so we put together Scaled in Miles, an interactive look at Miles Davis’ career and collaborations. Using the history of his recording sessions as documented by the Jazz Discography Project, we show every session that led to a recording, and if that recording is available on iTunes, you can listen to a sample. By scrubbing and clicking over the timeline of recording sessions, you can see who performed with Miles on each date. You can also find specific artists and highlight their sessions by clicking on the circles, or by entering different names in the search box. Larger circles indicate artists who had more sessions with Miles.

Just how much fun are we having?

When you have young children, at some point you will probably need to come to grips with the idea of vacationing at Disney World.

Zoom-in on Disney's Magic Kingdom
The stats for how we spent time at the Magic Kingdom during our vacation

On the one hand, Disney spends an enormous amount of effort creating memorable experiences for kids. On the other, they are behind one of the most relentless marketing efforts aimed at people too young to think critically about what they are seeing. But doesn’t going to Disney World exemplify putting your children’s interests before your own? But doesn’t Disney World exemplify crass consumer culture? But it’s fun for the kids! But it’s warping their minds! Yay! Nay!

Landing firmly on the grumpy side of that spectrum, I was less than excited when it was decided that my family would be spending a week in Orlando. Other than the whole watching-my-kids-have-fun thing, how could I make this trip more enjoyable? And how could I bring some objectivity to any further discussions on this topic? The answer came to me in a flash: data! I would pick up the torch of Fathom self-quantifying and track the amount of time we spent in line verus the time we spent on rides. With time running out, I whipped together a web app for my iPhone that allowed me to track the entry, exit, and waiting times for each family member on each ride. The app even included a way for the folks at the home office to leave messages for me. Now that my phone could help me track the ratio of waiting time to fun time, I was ready to go.

The custom interface for tracking rides, passengers, and wait times while on vacation.

The data collection stage of the project (a.k.a. “the vacation”) went smoothly. We spent three days at Disney parks, and one day at Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure (to satisfy the Harry Potter fans in the family). At the gate of each park, ride, or show my wife and I tracked the time we got in line, the time the entertainment started, the time it ended, and which kids were with us. I will admit that sometimes the timing was off: on the water rides, for example, the accuracy of the data did not merit a new phone. To further complicate things, whenever I tried to enter data with one hand, the other was yanked by someone who didn’t share my priorities of data entry. Thankfully, being close to the data meant that I could clean it up a bit when we got home.

We got to the park before opening in order to hit the rides before crowds built up. Our planning may have skewed the final wait/fun ratios. We also took advantage of Disney’s Fastpass system, which allows you to bypass some lines in favor of coming back later at a scheduled time. This wasn’t included in our tickets to Universal, which was one factor in the larger wait times there. You can see for yourself in the application I made based on the results.

Circles, words, lines
Visualization of time the author’s family spent waiting vs. riding at amusements parks in Orlando, FL. Larger circles indicate more time spent at a ride or park, and the width of the pink band indicates how much time was spent waiting. See the interactive version here.

In the day view, you can see the complete schedule of when we were at the parks, when we were waiting for rides, and which rides we were on. In the park view, you can see how many times we went to each park and ride, with the tallied fun time vs. wait time.

For what it’s worth, this is in no way intended to be a recommendation of which park has longer or shorter waiting times or which is the most fun. This is merely a reflection of how we chose to spend our time given the choices available to us when we visited each park. And does the wait time even matter? Despite only spending about seven minutes on the ride, my daughter said Space Mountain was, “Awesome with a capital A-W-E-S-O-M-E and googleplex exclamation points!” Does it get much better than that?

After all this, am I less grumpy about Disney’s influence on my children? I’m not going to write here about that. To find out, you’ll have to catch me in person. But don’t worry, it’s a small world.

Rising stars and many hats

This post continues from “Of guanxi, kingmakers, and princelings,” describing how we approach projects and let the data inform the presentation. You may want to read that one first.

From the outset of the Connected China project, initial discussions with Irene Jay Liu of Thomson Reuters told us that the career trajectories of Chinese officials would play a major role in the application.

In the custom database maintained by Irene’s team, a job is tracked as a relationship between a person and an organization. Memberships, academic affiliations, and person-to-person connections are stored in the same way. To better understand these connections, we built a quick tool to explore them along a timeline:

Connected China Relationship Explorer
In the data compiled by Reuters journalists, every type of connection between people, organizations, and events is assigned a specific relationship type. Particularly interesting is the time span attached to each link.

The database allowed the journalists to track the duration of every relationship, but durations were most readily available and reliable for official positions. As a result, we focused on the rise and fall of political careers. And what better careers to explore than those at the very top, the members of the Politburo Standing Committee?

Officially known as the “Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee,” the Politburo Standing Committee (or “PBSC”) is China’s most powerful organization. Their decisions trickle down through all levels of the Party and through the government and military. Our next step was to isolate the positions held by the PBSC’s nine members (in November, this number was decreased to seven). You can see the members listed across the top of the screen capture below, and underneath them you can see Li Keqiang‘s full career history as it appeared in the database at that time. Each of the rows with a red, orange, or yellow square mark a position he has held, and each black bar is a rough timeline showing the duration of the post.

PBSC Roles
In the summer of 2012, China’s top ruling body still had nine members. Each of them held multiple positions in the government and, more importantly, in the Communist Party.

One immediate observation we made was that a politician can wear many different hats at the same time. In the snapshot above, almost all of Li Keqiang’s positions within the Chinese Communist Party and the executive branch of the government are being held concurrently.  As officials climb the ladder, they usually take on parallel positions in the Party and in the government, and they frequently hold several offices in addition to their primary role. We would come back to those simultaneous positions later in the process. Before that, we had to find the means of showing career advancement.

How detailed could we be about career advancement? Even jobs that aren’t necessarily superior on paper represent an advance in status and experience. While the journalists researched official sources for ranking civil service positions, we built a quick tool to put the various jobs in a fixed order. We then plotted the careers of the members of the PBSC, first indicating the type of positions they held in a grid and then expanding those positions into a timeline. We also wanted to acknowledge the impact that age has on careers—the Party and the government enforce retirement ages, so politicians who get a late start might never achieve top leadership. So we added the option to align the timeline by age, which you can see in the video below around the :08 mark.  We collapsed the jobs to show only the most important ones during their careers.

Many of these ideas made it into the final Connected China app, but plotting each position as an incremental rise or fall in career importance did not. Because not all positions are easily mapped onto ranks, too many of the steps involved an “unknown” change in status, which made comparisons difficult. Sometimes, it can be hard to say goodbye to an idea, but we knew comparing careers would need to be straightforward for an audience not concerned with the nuances of roles and rank.

Some positions within the civil service are assigned ranks or administrative levels. Unlike in the United States, where a presidential candidate can be a U.S. senator, a state governor, a business leader—or even an actor—political advancement in the Chinese system tends to follow a prescribed pattern. Officials start off with local positions, then advance to the provinces, and then step onto the national stage before they can rise to the Politburo Standing Committee. Most serve in a deputy role at both the provincial and national levels, but some, like the President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, rise quickly enough to skip those deputy roles.

In order to plot a politician’s rise, we needed to map each of their roles to its correct administrative level, and then collapse all of their simultaneous roles beneath the most important position. Since the reporting team was still in the process of researching and entering positions in the database, it was time for another iteration to make sure we were showing career growth accurately. In this one, we showed both a full career history on the right, and a timeline of corresponding administrative levels on the left:

Admin Level browser
In the Chinese civil service, ranks are assigned to many of the positions. Career trajectories proceed along these ranks in consistent ways.

Once we had the fundamentals worked out, we set aside our internal tools and started work on what would become the final application. We determined that the full list of roles and the steps in a career told necessary—but fundamentally different—stories, so we handled them in two different ways. In the Career Comparison view, the ability to compare multiple careers far outweighs the need to see the specifics of a political post. Initial testing showed this career comparison to be an important window into understanding the subject at hand, and as a result, it became one of just five top-level sections in the final application.

Three Presidents in Connected China
Three generations of Chinese presidents in the Career Comparison view of Connected China. Retired Jiang Zemin is in green, Hu Jintao is blue, and new President Xi Jinping is in gold. Each path features a steep rise and jumps over one or more administrative levels.

On the other hand, the full career history is used to round out an individual’s profile, where it’s more appropriate to show the additional detail of their career.

Xi Jinping's career history in Connected China
Xi Jinping’s career history, as shown in his profile page in Connected China. Wide bars denote positions he holds currently, and color denotes the rank. Here, his most important role (leader of the Chinese Communist Party) is highlighted.

By toggling the different checkboxes at the bottom, you can highlight an individual’s positions within the Party, government, military, and roles from other categories. Swiping (on a tablet) or dragging the mouse (on a desktop computer) across each position will show details such as rank and the official name of the post. The wider bars indicate currently held positions—emphasizing the tendency for top officials to hold many positions at the same time.

These simultaneous offices are one mechanism by which the Party, the government, and the military act in concert. In the Institutional Power view, we provide a map of the these pillars of power, and in step two of the introductory guide we highlight the positions held by the members of the Politburo Standing Committee. As you tap or move your mouse over each member, all of their current positions are highlighted in red. Below, you can see the positions currently held by Xi Jinping, head of the Communist Party and incoming president. You can see he is at the very top of the party and the military, and currently serving as vice president within the government.

Roles held by PBSC members in Connected China
Chinese officials often serve simultaneously in the Party, government, and military. In the Institutional Power view, we show the top tiers of all three pillars and the roles held by members of the Politburo Standing Committee. Here, all the positions currently held by Xi Jinping are highlighted in red.

The ongoing efforts of the Reuters journalists continued to uncover more details about political posts and connections during our development process.  And by using that data to inform the tools we built as part of the process, we were able to weave useful information about political careers throughout the application.

Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom Information Design works with clients to understand complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Out of its studio in Boston, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

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