Things of the month: December 2020

Well, December certainly happened.

I’d like to say that all the links I’ve collected here helped power me through the last, dark, shitty days of 2020. But to be honest, I think I owe more to (a) alcohol and (b) eating potatoes with almost every meal.

Still, this lot helped a bit too. To get in the mood, how about starting with some BIRD BEATS? In a very wholesome turn of events, music producer So Wylie decided to have a go at remixing a saw-whet owl’s call, and her work immediately went viral in the birding community. So she’s started making more, and she seems … pretty happy that this is her thing now?

🔧 Data collection and analysis

The Economist has published a nice bundle of features for its Christmas issue this year. One gets into the odd, new-ish practise of using data science techniques to analyse literary texts. It comes with some nice Economist-style charts and some interesting insights. It also paints a really striking picture of how far the field has come by opening with the work of Father Roberto Busa, who started analysing the works of Thomas Aquinas in the 1950s on punchcard machines, eventually transferring his life’s work to a website in 2005.

I also enjoyed Tom Scott’s YouTube video ‘How weird is my audience?’, partly because it’s the first time I’ve heard of a polling company being employed solely to make YouTube content. Scott commissioned a poll of a representative sample of U.S. adults, and then put the same set of questions out to his followers to answer if they chose. It’s not the most scientific approach ever, but it does include some nice discussion of the kinds of things that can go wrong with polling.

📊 Communicating data

The Pudding always creates gorgeous interactive data visualisations, and this exploration of the cost of illumination through the ages is no exception. Expect to have to work out to find out how much labour it took to pay for an hour of light in the 1800s and ancient Babylon compared with today.

Who is the hungriest rapper? Erin Davis set out to find the answer using data from Spotify and Genius, counting up who mentions food the most. It’s a fun article, but the bit I liked best comes at the very end. Davis has put together a little animated gif showing her data pipeline as a literal pipeline, with lyrics pouring in at the top and a Spotify funnel filtering out all the rappers. It somehow looks exactly like my brain feels when I’ve figured out all the steps in an analysis project.

Nightingale has spent the month publishing articles about ‘data sensification’ – in other words, communicating data through any medium besides the visual. It’s worth browsing through the latest articles on their homepage to see what takes your fancy. I particularly liked this article about using objects of different sizes to create a sense of wonder (but then I would say that, having myself written for Nightingale about wonder earlier this year).

🔭 Scientific observations

There was more on wonder in The Atlantic this month, with an article that moves seamlessly from describing photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope to the psychology of how looking at those pictures can make us feel (in the words of the author, “small, but in a reassuring way”).

Not that you need an advanced space telescope to feel that way – sometimes, a can of beer will do. The University of Hertfordshire announced this month that a former student had accidentally created what is probably the longest-exposure image of the sky ever taken. Using a beer can. Regina Valkenborgh set up a beer-can pinhole camera in the University’s observatory as part of an MA project back in 2012 – but this particular can was forgotten about until it was picked up earlier this year, and the surprisingly clear image was revealed.

Image via University of Herfortshire / Regina Valkenborgh

🧠 Human behaviour

This month, the world found out about the existence of ancient rock paintings stretching across eight miles of cliff face in the Colombian Amazon. The paintings are probably around 12,500 years old and include thousands of depictions of human and animal forms. The bit I can’t quite get over is that they depict lots of ice-age megafauna, which means that the archaeologist know that they’re so old they were painted before there was a rainforest in the Amazon. This BBC article has more pictures, and the Channel 4 documentary Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon covers it in its second episode.

🐙 Also, we now know about octopuses punching fish

The other thing the world learned this month is that octopuses sometimes punch fish, potentially ‘out of spite’. A Twitter thread by researcher Eduardo Sampaio got a lot of coverage for showing an octopuses (octupi?) punching fish (fishes?) during collaborative hunting. Smithsonian Magazine has a nice write-up of why researchers think this happens. Basically, it’s sometimes a straightforward attempt to get better access to food, but sometimes it isn’t. And in those cases, the octopus might be being ‘spiteful’ to make hunting harder for the fish in general, or there might be some sort of delayed benefit to doing it.

Happy new year!