There are many good reasons to check in daily with the excellent, minimalist webcomic xkcd. Among them are this one, which is the definitive statement on Internet discussion boards. Also this one, which is all you need to know about YouTube comments. Oh, and this one, which is a perfect distillation of hell as my 20-year-old Tetris-addicted self would’ve conceived it.
One of the best reasons, though, is that xkcd cartoonist Randall Monroe is also a singularly awesome creator of infographics, and a little while back he posted one that is, to my mind, the Infographic of the Year for 2011. It’s called Money Chart. It’s a sort of overlapping series of bar graphs depicting the vast world of cold hard cash, grouped by theme. In an age obsessed with — and crippled by — baroque high finance, it verges on the definitive single-link portrait of our time.
The Money Chart is so enormous and obviously excellent on its own merits, I’m inclined to link to it without further comment — the real delight is in scrolling around and exploring — but I will point out a couple of my favorite bits with particular relevance to the innovation beat:
1) Raw energy, raw power: Scroll to the very top, very middle, and you’ll find an area of the chart labelled “Corporations by Market Capitalization.” Notice how you could probably fit all the other charted corporations inside the vast grid of squares representing the $2.94 trillion controlled by Saudi Aramco. Notice as well that four of the other worldwide Top 11 are also oil companies. Keep that in mind any time the subject of climate change and renewable energy comes up, because that’s what pure unadulterated hyper-concentrated power looks like, and it doesn’t rest in the hands of climate scientists or solar entrepreneurs.
2) Externalities in a snapshot: The very top right is a revelatory bar graph labelled “Cost of electricity.” It’s interesting that both wind and geothermal are visibly already cost-competitive with anything else on the chart and yet massively undercapitalized by comparison. But the real eye-popper is what happens to the world’s “cheapest” energy source, coal, once you factor in its mammoth externalized costs. There’s something quietly definitive about that simple line of lighter-coloured squares, stretching coal’s cost to the point where it’s obviously the most expensive energy source of the bunch.
3) High-speed rail = “too expensive”?: Just below the electricity graph is a fascinating one labelled “Megaprojects.” A high-speed rail link from Los Angeles to San Francisco, which many commentators are treating like it’s the solid-gold toilet of infrastructure projects, does amount to a pretty impressive pile of squares at $45 billion. Except when you position it next to the fantastical missile defense shield first dreamed up by a senile Ronald Reagan ($107.7 billion and counting by 2013). Or the city Qatar’s building just to host soccer’s World Cup ($207 billion). Or the interstate highway system Eisenhower happily backed back in the day when Americans weren’t afraid of ambitious public works projects ($466 billion).
4) Solid gold toilet!: This one’s a bit tricky to find, buried as it is in the big section about the astronomical costs of American elections. But look closely, midway across, near the bottom, and just to the right of Mitt Romney’s net worth ($210 million), there’s a little bar graph tracking the value of a solid gold toilet by year. Which is awesome.
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