Edward Tufte, the persistently self-promoting but nevertheless pretty cool author of the paradigm-refinin' book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, has made a career out of shouting from the rooftop that there's a better, punchier, more powerful way of doing some of the things that are worth doing. In particular, he singles out and evangelizes in behalf of amazingly informative, instantly intelligible graphics of statistical data.
His most famous case in point is Charles Joseph Minard's chart of Napoleon's disastrous march on Moscow in 1812. All at once, and without confusion, the attrition chart shows the size of Napoleon's army (width of line) over time (length of line), over topography (course of line and geographical place-names), according to military goal (advance color and retreat color), and in relation to the bitter winter temperature (marked in degrees below zero). He even illustrates reunion with a detachment:
Well, attention to such matters has caught on largely due to Tufte's efforts, and now the art/data jockey Martin Wattenberg has a time-suckingly fascinating website, http://www.bewitched.com/, that aggregates his own amazing examples of the dynamic visual presentation of raw data. For example, there's the wholly entrancing Name Voyager, which shows the top 1000 names for boys and girls for every year in the past century. Mousing over the interface will reveal the names; clicking at any time will isolate and inflate that name's chart. Type a single letter, or a couple of letters, to see a subset:
Yes, it's true: Gertrude and Ethel are old-fashioned!
And then there's History Flow:
The colorful history flow diagrams take a lengthy edit history and turn it into a picture. The image above, for instance, shows the history of the Wikipedia article on chocolate. What jumps out? The zigzag pattern at the right. It turns out that this is an argument over whether a certain type of surrealist sculpture exists or not.
Other mind-soothing stimulators of the stat-sensory cortex available at Bewitched.com include Apartment, which takes anything the user types at a prompt and converts it into a rational domestic floorplan based on semantic and thematic analysis. Continue to type, and the apartment will expand into buildings and communities, all organized as a function of the content you provide.
After textually sim-citifying, relax over the shapes of some popular songs and think about how the weekend's looking.