Sunday, April 08, 2007

More fun with Gapminder / Trendalyzer

Watching internet usage vs. income on the visualizer is very interesting.

Several things are quite apparent. (1) Internet usage exploded in all countries in the world. (2) Richer countries have more internet usage (linear relationship on the scatterplot), but it's been increasing in all countries regardless.

The animation has a few issues, of course -- I think some of the funny, rapid movements at the very start are due to issues with when they started collecting reliable data on internet usage in the early 90's, and the data probably started being more reliable at different times in different countries, etc.

These are countervailing phenomena that require attention to variation within and across groups of data. I can't imagine pie charts or tables of numbers that could ever convey this level of nuance.

One last thing. Going to the linear scale (so you can see differences in large amounts of internet use), watch South Korea vs. United States. Korea, a country with about half of the U.S.'s income per capita, is quite behind, then suddenly rockets ahead and surpasses the U.S. in the late 90's. (This is the country where Starcraft is a national sport -- are we getting p0wned??)

(If you want to get these bookmarkable URL's, you use it at -- terrific world data visualizations

This is an amazing information visualization from It displays a scatterplot of nations' life expectancy versus income per capita, and plays the trend across years. Countries are circles, sized by their population size. (So it's a weighted scatterplot... a "bubbleplot".)

Open in new window -- Fertility vs. Income.

It's very powerful -- you can actually change the variables on each axis, the coloring scheme, etc. Fertility vs. Income shows the well-known linear relationship that higher income countries have lower fertility. However, by playing over time it becomes apparent that middle- and low-income countries have been decreasing their fertility rates over the past several decades -- the entire line downshifts.

Numerous other interesting effects can be seen. It's fascinating to watch Hans Rosling's 2006 TED presentation: Myths about the developing world, in which he runs through this and another visualization, pointing out many phenomena. It's impressive how much you can communicate with good data presentation.

If you don't want to watch the video, here is the other he presents, of income distribution across different world regions:

Apparently Google has acquired the Trendalyzer software (the animated bubbleplot) developed at Gapminder. I hope that means it's in good hands; they say they want to enhance it and make it freely available. (Where I work we appreciate what Marissa Mayer has to say, so I'll believe that blog post :))

I was reminded of this site from the SSS blog, but I've been meaning to write about it for a while.

Random search engine searcher

It's sweeping the internet -- I wrote a little plugin for the firefox/internet explorer search box, so when you search it randomly picks one of several search engines. You get to see what's out there (you mean there's something besides Google?) in your daily searching.

Search a Random Search Engine

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


I must be too cynical. I thought I didn't like Philip Zimbardo's theatrics, but regardless I really appreciated this NYT interview with him on the universal capacity for evil.

(S.P.E. is the Stanford Prison Experiment, whose pictures here are from that lovely basement hallway, still there behind the 420-40 and 41 lecture rooms.)

In particular:

Q. What was your reaction when you first saw those photographs from Abu Ghraib?

A. I was shocked. But not surprised. I immediately flashed on similar pictures from the S.P.E. What particularly bothered me was that the Pentagon blamed the whole thing on a “few bad apples.” I knew from our experiment, if you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples.

That was why I was willing to be an expert witness for Sgt. Chip Frederick, who was ultimately sentenced to eight years for his role at Abu Ghraib. Frederick was the Army reservist who was put in charge of the night shift at Tier 1A, where detainees were abused. Frederick said, up front, “What I did was wrong, and I don’t understand why I did it.”

Q. Do you understand?

A. Yeah. The situation totally corrupted him. When his reserve unit was first assigned to guard Abu Ghraib, Frederick was exactly like one of our nice young men in the S.P.E. Three months later, he was exactly like one of our worst guards.

Q. Aren’t you absolving Sergeant Frederick of personal responsibility for his actions?

A. You had the C.I.A., civilian interrogators, military intelligence saying to the Army reservists, “Soften these detainees up for interrogation.”

Those kinds of vague orders were the equivalent of my saying to the S.P.E. guards, “It’s your prison.” At Abu Ghraib, you didn’t have higher-ups saying, “You must do these terrible things.” The authorities, I believe, created an environment that gave guards permission to become abusive — plus one that gave them plausible deniability.

Chip worked 40 days without a single break, 12-hour shifts. The place was overcrowded, filthy, dangerous, under constant bombardment. All of that will distort judgment, moral reasoning. The bottom line: If you’re going to have a secret interrogation center in the middle of a war zone, this is going to happen.

Q. You keep using this phrase “the situation” to describe the underlying cause of wrongdoing. What do you mean?

A. That human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside. The “situation” is the external environment. The inner environment is genes, moral history, religious training. There are times when external circumstances can overwhelm us, and we do things we never thought. If you’re not aware that this can happen, you can be seduced by evil. We need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can change it.

Q. So you disagree with Anne Frank, who wrote in her diary, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart?”

A. That’s not true. Some people can be made into monsters. And the people who abused, and killed her, were.

On a slightly lighter note. On his conscience:

Q. Why did you pull the plug on the experiment?

A. On the fifth night, my former graduate student Christina Maslach came by. She witnessed the guards putting bags over the prisoners’ heads, chain their legs and march them around. Chris ran out in tears. “I’m not sure I want to have anything more to do with you, if this is the sort of person you are,” she said. “It’s terrible what you’re doing to those boys.” I thought, “Oh my God, she’s right.”

If you ever see the official Stanford prison experiment video, Zimbardo continues: "She was right. And she later became my wife." Yikes.

Finally, on the Milgram experiment:

Here’s something that’s sort of funny. The first time I spoke publicly about the S.P.E., Stanley Milgram told me: “Your study is going to take all the ethical heat off of my back. People are now going to say yours is the most unethical study ever, and not mine.”

There's a lot to say about the ethical and methodological dimensions of the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments' (unfortunate?) legacy on the behavioral sciences. For another day's post, perhaps.