The breathing (middle) Earth

Winter is coming. It’s not only the fans of Game of Thrones who know it. The first leaves are starting to fall from the trees as we enter the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. “To every thing there is a season…” according to Ecclesiastes, but John Nelson has put it even more eloquently in his animated GIF called “The Breathing Earth” shown above.

Constructed from a series of cloud-free satellite images from NASA, it shows the ebb and flow of snow cover and vegetation as the seasons pass. It beautifully illustrates the climatic rhythm of the world; the earth as a beating heart.

As you watch the snow line advance and retreat, one striking fact becomes clear. The United Kingdom is extremely fortunate as regards to its weather. Yes, it’s true. Look at the top part of the image. Despite a reputation as a land in which everyone constantly moans about the weather, in fact the UK has it good. Look how far down the snow line comes in winter elsewhere. It reaches all the way to places like Colorado, Turkey and Afghanistan, all more than thousand kilometres further south. Meanwhile, the British Isles remain remarkably warm thanks to the Gulf Stream.

The fact that there is a Gulf Stream should not be a surprise, since every school child knows that. But this animated map demonstrates its effect and gets the point across very efficiently. If you consider the different means of communicating information such as speech, the written word, numbers or pictures there is a clear hierarchy of efficiency when it comes to delivering facts. As the old adage has it, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Let’s consider speech first. The spoken word is very good at communicating emotional content. Vocal inflections help the listener to interpret the message and gauge, for example, the self-confidence of the speaker or the intended level of sarcasm or humour. In contrast, emails lack this. That is why it’s always a mistake to send an email in the heat of the moment. It is likely to be misinterpreted. But other than for emotional communication, the spoken word is very inefficient.

Proof? Here are two examples. First, on a presentation training course you are always told never to hand out your power point pitch in paper form at the beginning of the meeting. Why? Because the audience will then read it and race ahead of you when they are bored. Actually, this has always struck me as bad advice. Surely it’s more important to make sure your audience is not bored rather than deliberately keep them in a state of somnolent stupefaction. The main point is that they can read it faster than you can speak it. The written word is therefore more efficient at delivering information speedily than the spoken word. And they want it fast.

The second example involves a regular fixture of the winter calendar – a Peter Jackson movie about hobbits. When he made the Lord of The Rings, Peter Jackson condensed the original text of half a million words into three films, each of which lasted around two and a half hours. But when he proposed to turn the Hobbit, a slim book for children of less than 100,000 words, into a trilogy of films of a similar length there was uproar amongst the critics. Surely this was just a cynical marketing move. By stretching out the meagre source material to sell tickets for three separate trips to the cinema, he was clearly slicing the salami far too thin.

In fact, if you crunch the numbers you will find out that this is not true. If you were to read the Hobbit out aloud, it would take just over 11 hours. At least, that is the length of the unabridged audio book. Three movies at, say, 3 hours each for the extended DVD versions, would clock in at 9 hours. By that arithmetic, he could probably get away with making it into four movies. Coming back to our main point, it is further evidence that the spoken word is not a very efficient way of transmitting information.

The written word trumps the spoken word when it comes to speed of delivery. Taking the national average reading speed of 300 words a minute, it would take 5.5 hours to read the Hobbit, from cover to cover, in one sitting. In other words, it is twice as fast as reading it out aloud. But even the written word is much less efficient than pictures. If you want to know what happens in the Hobbit, then the plot can be summarised in just one diagram, such as the one below.


No one would suggest that the fun of reading one of the classics of children’s fiction can be replicated by a glance at simple map but, leaving aside the rich descriptions, characterisations and interwoven story arcs of that imaginary world, it does at least present the bare facts of the story in a quickly digestible form. In a world where time is of the essence, text is being gradually replaced by infographics because pictures and numbers get the story across quicker. Web gurus often tell you that ‘pictures are the new text’. Nowadays, having the time to read is a luxury – something you do on holiday to relax.



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