Inscrutability and data visualization: the lost language of the khipu

While it has long been understood that the Inca khipu was an advanced thread/cord-based numerical accounting system, there are tantalizing shreds of evidence suggesting that it was much more — a singular kind of writing, capable of containing myth and recording history. Unfortunately, in 1583, “Peru’s nascent Roman Catholic church decreed that khipus were the devil’s work and ordered the destruction of every khipu in the former Inca empire.” This decree spelled the end of the khipumayoc, the Incan caste of writers and readers who alone could decipher the meanings of the khipu’s intricate knots and finely-woven colored strings.

It’s possible . . . that khipus were actually examples of semasiography, a system of representative symbols—such as numerals or musical notation—that conveys information but isn’t tied to the speech sounds of a single language, in this instance Quechua. (By contrast, logographic languages such as Chinese and Japanese are phonetic as well as character-based.) The Incas conquered a huge number of neighboring peoples in a short time span, between 1438 and 1532; each of these groups had its own language or dialect, and the Incas wanted to integrate those new territories into their hyperefficient organizational network quickly.

If khipus are examples of semasiography, the obvious next step is to break their code. Nearly a decade ago, Gary Urton, a professor of pre-Columbian studies at Harvard, began the Khipu Database project (KDB), a digitized repository of 520 khipus. (831 khipus are known to exist worldwide.) Urton has argued that khipus contain vastly more information than once believed—a rich trove of data encoded in each cord’s colors, materials, and type of knot. The KDB may have already decoded the first word from a khipu—the name of a village, Puruchuco, which Urton believes was represented by a three-number sequence much like an Inca ZIP code. If he’s correct, the system employed to encode information in the khipus is the only known example of a complex language recorded in a 3-D system.  Khipus may turn out to be something like bar codes that could be “scanned” by anyone with the proper training. (

Separated from the meanings that gave rise to their intricate structures, khipus appear to us not as texts but as abstract textile artworks. However, because we know that their origin is in the representation of data, khipus have a powerful and mysterious presence. A similar experience can be had when we look upon an abstract data visualization: simply knowing that a given visualization is somehow derived from real flows of sensor data or network traffic imbues it with mystery and a patina of inscrutable meaning. No “legend” is required to appreciate such works — indeed, a legend or key can have the effect of lessening the mystery and robbing the viewer of the imaginative act of speculating on the “meaning” of the visualization. Perhaps this makes the loss of the khipu’s secrets a little more tolerable: so long as we cannot read the tangles of their knots and cords, we are free to imagine what they must mean.

The Particle Physics Wind Chime

Earlier this year, physicist Matt Bellis helped Jen Stein, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz and me to put together a Processing data visualization for Jen’s PUCK project. For Matt, getting us up and running on visualizing a very simple data set was relatively trivial, especially compared to the amazing work he’s done with the Particle Physics Wind Chime.

Like particle physicists the world over, Bellis is forced to improvise ways to share his research with the public, using whatever comes to hand. He’s animated bristling spheres of particle tracks in sophisticated vector graphics – complete with cool soundtracks. He’s illustrated fundamental relationships between different particle types with Google Docs. Bellis has developed a whole toolbox of methods to help him explain particle physics. Until recently, however, all the tools in his toolbox were visual.

A trained musician, Bellis came up with the idea of rendering the results of particle collisions as sounds. The process of rendering data into sound is known in general as “sonification.” Bellis wanted to sonify data from BaBar.

“I had the idea of the BaBar detector as an instrument,” Bellis said, but not one played by human hands. It would be played by the particles gusting through it, like wind through a wind chime.“Think of it,” Bellis said.  “The wind itself makes no sound. You hear the wind if it rustles the leaves in a tree. The motion of the wind itself doesn’t necessarily make a sound. The wind has to interact with something to make noise.” In the same way, “When you have these particles that pass through the detector, they send it ringing, resonating in some way.”Thus was born the idea of the Particle Physics Windchime: A computer application that could take particle physics data such as particle type, momentum, distance from a fixed point, and so on, and turn it into sound. (Symmetry Breaking)

tldr – visualizing large-scale discussions

tldr is an application for navigating through large-scale online discussions. The application visualizes structures and patterns within ongoing conversations to let the user browse to content of most interest. In addition to visual overviews, it also incorporates features such as thread summarization, non-linear navigation, multi-dimensional filtering, and various other features that improve the experience of participating in large-discussions. (tldr)

See also: Srikanth Narayan

Imaging Dolphin Language

Using high definition audio recordings of dolphins, the research team, headed by English acoustics engineer, John Stuart Reid, and Florida-based dolphin researcher, Jack Kassewitz, has been able to image, for the first time, the imprint that a dolphin sound makes in water.   They call it CymaScope and say it reveals detailed structures within sounds, allowing their architecture to be studied pictorially.The resulting "CymaGlyphs," as they have been named, are reproducible patterns that are expected to form the basis of a lexicon of dolphin language, each pattern representing a dolphin ‘picture word.’ (reuters)

Hans Rosling: Things are changing

In a follow-up to his now-legendary TED2006 presentation, Hans Rosling demonstrates how developing countries are pulling themselves out of poverty. He shows us the next generation of his Trendalyzer software — which analyzes and displays data in amazingly accessible ways, allowing people to see patterns previously hidden behind mountains of stats. (Ten days later, he announced a deal with Google to acquire the software.) He also demos Dollar Street, a program that lets you peer in the windows of typical families worldwide living at different income levels. Be sure to watch straight through to the (literally) jaw-dropping finale.