Edward Tufte and classical intellectual inquiry

be_coverNear the begin­ning of Edward Tufte’s Beau­ti­ful Evi­dence, he writes “My books are self-exemplifying: the objects them­selves embody the ideas writ­ten about.” The same could be true of his pre­sen­ta­tions.

On a recent Tues­day, Friends Jour­nal spon­sored me to attend one of Tufte’s one-day work­shops. He’s most well-known for his beau­ti­ful books on data visu­al­iza­tions but his work­shop touched on a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing top­ics. “The world is way too inter­est­ing to have dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries,” he said at one point as he took us from music to maps to space shut­tles to magi­cians. The range was pur­pose­ful. He was teach­ing us how to think.

I esti­mated a crowd of maybe 450. A large per­cent­age were low-to-mid-level cor­po­rate types (I over­heard one say “I was not expect­ing that he’d bash Pow­er­Point so much”; this slacker obvi­ously hadn’t even skimmed the head­ers on Tufte’s Wikipedia page!). There were smaller mixes of techie, cre­atives, and design pro­fes­sion­als, some of whom were there after fawn­ing over his books for years. Bonus if you go: part of the work­shop reg­is­tra­tion fee is gratis copies of his books!

I have 13 pages of notes. Some high­lights for me:

  • The heart of much of the work­shop was crit­i­cal think­ing. Tufte dis­sected var­i­ous news web­sites to take us through the ways they gave attri­bu­tion and pre­sented data. He also went through stud­ies and gave var­i­ous point­ers to sniff out when ver­i­fy­ing data was being with­held.
  • “Pro­duc­ing a good pre­sen­ta­tion is a moral and eth­i­cal act.” (ditto for being an good audi­ence mem­ber). There is a form of civic respon­si­bil­ity to inquiry that Tufte expects.
  • Tufte is a big believer in meet­ings that begin with read­ing. The highest-resolution device most of us have is paper. Peo­ple can read 2 – 3 times faster than a pre­sen­ter can talk. By let­ting peo­ple go at their own pace they can tai­lor the pre­sen­ta­tion to their own needs.
  • Data pre­sen­ta­tion: A theme through­out the work­shop was “doc­u­ments not decks,” an empha­sis on flat, web-like pre­sen­ta­tions that allow read­ers to con­trol scrolling. He con­tin­u­ally called out “flat sur­faces,” mate­r­ial that was “adja­cent in space” to give an almost spir­i­tual argu­ment for their supe­ri­or­ity over deck-like pre­sen­ta­tions (exem­pli­fied by Pow­er­Point) that can obscure impor­tant data.
  • Not pan­der­ing to the audi­ence: Con­sumer sites show that data can be pop­u­lar: the New York Times’s web­site has 450 links; ESPN’s has tables atop tables. Peo­ple read these every day; why can’t we have the same level of data-rich acces­si­bil­ity in our work lives? ““Have we sud­denly becomes stu­pid just because we’ve comes to work?” He urged the mid-level cor­po­rates in the audi­ence to demand good pre­sen­ta­tions. We should push back against the low-expectations of their bosses to ask “Why can’t we live up to ESPN?”
  • Data as beauty. From gor­geous maps to graph­i­cal music nota­tion (below), Tufte loves design and data that come together in beauty. It is amaz­ing.

One of my favorite parts of the work­shop was an after­noon digres­sion from strict data that he intro­duced by say­ing, “it’s time for a heart to heart.” It began with a ser­mon­ette on cred­i­bil­ity: how to make your­self account­able and just other’s argu­ments.

Then he talked about how to respond when some­one chal­lenges your work. I could tell he must have many per­sonal sto­ries inform­ing this – lessons learned, yes, but surely oppor­tu­ni­ties lost too. Tufte told us it was only nat­ural to respond in defen­sive­ness and anger, but coun­seled us to not be too quick to dis­miss cri­tique. You’ve got to won­der whether your chal­lenger might be right.

When you’re in a room with peers, remem­ber that they’ve been so fil­tered and selected over the years. You should assume they will be just as smart as you are. “How dare you think your motives are bet­ter than those of your col­leagues!” he said at an emo­tional crescendo. He admit­ted that this self-doubt is a hard pos­ture to adopt. He’s polled pub­lic fig­ures he respects and even the thick­est skinned are stung by chal­lenge.

He said he had learned to back off, go slow, and con­tem­plate when chal­lenged. Just when I thought he had found some super-human abil­ity to ratio­nally con­sider things, he told us it could took him three to five years to really accept the valid­ity of con­flict­ing views.

This was a much-needed ser­mon for me. I nod­ded along along. As some­one who pro­fes­sion­ally ampli­fies opin­ion, I’m often in the mid­dle of peo­ple in debate (some­times I’m one of the actors, though less these days). It’s good to see intel­lec­tual debate as a process and to remem­ber that yes: it can take years. “This con­cludes the ther­a­peu­tic por­tion of today’s course”, he con­cluded, before send­ing us off again to look at visu­al­iza­tions.

He ended by show­ing us time­less first-editions of beau­ti­ful sci­en­tific works by Galileo and Euclid. There was a deep appre­ci­a­tion of being part of an intel­lec­tual tra­di­tion. He was a mas­ter and for this day we were his appren­tices. “In life we need tools that last for­ever and give us clear lever­age in clear think­ing.”

Love will win

I haven’t posted any­thing on the hor­rific mass shoot­ing because like most of you, I’ve been in shock, try­ing to learn and try­ing to make sense of some­thing that will never make any sense. I don’t have any pro­found insights on the shoot­ing. I don’t want to claim I know the real rea­son this hap­pened and I don’t want to mansplain a list of fixes that will keep it from ever hap­pen­ing again. I’m griev­ing for the vic­tims and their fam­i­lies.

I ache for my LGBTQI fam­ily who are too used to ran­dom vio­lence, both mass and per­sonal. I worry for the way the shooter’s eth­nic­ity and alle­giance will only be used to jus­tify more big­otry and vio­lence. I’m sick of liv­ing in a world where ISIL thinks mass shoot­ings are a jus­ti­fi­able polit­i­cal state­ment and I’m sick of liv­ing in a coun­try where the NRA and its politi­cians think it’s okay to sell military-grade assault weapons. I pray for sim­ple things: love, heal­ing, con­so­la­tion. And I cry inside and out. Life and love will win out.

And, from Friends Jour­nal:

Historic Cold Spring Village in Cape May, NJ

Down near the tip of South Jer­sey is Cold Spring Vil­lage, a nine­teenth cen­tury liv­ing his­tory museum just north of the Vic­to­ri­ana of Cape May Point . We vis­ited for it’s “Hands-On His­tory” week­end. In August, our 12 year old Theo will be a junior appren­tice in the broom-making shop. We also vis­ited here about this time of year in 2013.

Head of the River Church circa 1792

From Wikipedia: “Head of the River Church is a his­toric Methodist church on Route 49 in Estell Manor, Atlantic County, New Jer­sey, United States. It was built in 1792 and added to the National Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places in 1979.” A few years ago the Press of Atlantic City did a nice piece on the church and the his­tory of the lost town it served.

Head of River Church
Head of River Church

The Sect-Church continuum circa 1967

I find this oh-so-tidy 1967 chart fas­ci­nat­ing for the way it inher­ently claims to give a struc­ture clas­si­fi­ca­tions for all reli­gious expres­sions. But I’m scratch­ing my head about how it’d fit the rise of non-denominational Evan­gel­i­cal­ism which now dom­i­nates Chris­t­ian cul­ture. Was it pos­si­ble in 1967 to see the vari­ety of Amer­i­can spir­i­tu­al­ity as an unam­bigu­ous con­tin­uum between estab­lished main­line churches and weird lit­tle sects?

From Robert W. Doherty, after Ernst Troeltsch, in the introductory material to The Hicksite Separation: A Sociological Analysis of Religious Schism in Early Nineteenth Century America.
From Robert W. Doherty, after Ernst Troeltsch, in the intro­duc­tory mate­r­ial to The Hick­site Sep­a­ra­tion: A Soci­o­log­i­cal Analy­sis of Reli­gious Schism in Early Nine­teenth Cen­tury Amer­ica.

Rocking out with friendship bracelets

The Friends Jour­nal board meet­ing is at the Pen­dle Hill con­fer­ence cen­ter. Our busi­ness usu­ally end on the early side, giv­ing me time to explore Pen­dle Hill arts room. Can I remem­ber how to make a friend­ship bracelet?

For­tu­nately I now have YouTube to jog my mem­ory.