I’m thrilled that the Ulysses writing apps for iOS and Mac have been updated this week. They now have Dropbox syncing back and can post directly to WordPress. If this post shows it means the WP integration works!
The August issue of Friends Journal looks at the physicality of the places where we live our our faith.
Jean Ritchie’s Nottamun Town, Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, and John Lennon’s Working Class Hero. Actually they’re all great songs – maybe even especially for sharing a melody.
Over on Quora, a question that is more fascinating than it might at first appear: What wars in history were fought in the name of Quakerism (Society of Friends)?:
This question is neither sarcastic nor rhetoric. As many people insist that violence and atrocities are an inherent part of religions, that religions would cause wars, I really want to know if that is the truth. Personally I believe religions can be peaceful, such as in the cases of the Quakers and the Baha’i, but I might be wrong.
The obvious answer should be “none.” Quakers are well-known as pacifists (fun fact: fake cannon used to deceive the enemy into thinking an army is more fortified than it actually is are called “Quaker guns.”) Individual Quakers have rarely been quite as united around the peace testimony as our reputation would suggest, but as a group it’s true we’ve never called for a war. I can’t think of any military skirmish or battle waged to rallying cries of “Remember the Quakers!”
And yet: all of modern civilization has been shaped by war. Our political boundaries, our religions, our demographic make-up – even the languages we speak are all remnants of long-ago battles. One of the most influential Quaker thinkers, the eighteenth century minister John Woolman, constantly reminded his brethren to consider those luxuries that are the fruit of war and slavery. When we broaden the scope like this, we’ve been involved in quite a few wars.
- We like to remember how William Penn founding the colony of Pennsylvania as a religious refuge. But the king of England held European title to the mid-Atlantic seaboard because of small wars with the Dutch and Swedes (and later held onto it only after a much larger war with the French New World settlements).
- The king’s grant of “Penn’s Woods” was the settlement of a very large war debt owed to Penn’s father, a wealthy admiral. The senior William Penn was something of a scoundrel, playing off both sides in every-shifting royalist/Roundhead seesaw of power. His longest-lasting accomplishment was taking Jamaica for the British. Bob Marley sang in English because of Sir William.
- By most accounts, William Penn Jr. was fair and also bought the land from local Lenape nations. Mostly forgotten is that the Lenape and Susquehannock population had been devastated in a recent regional war against the Iroquois over beaver territories. The Iroquois were skillfully playing global politics, keeping the English and French colonial empires in enough strategic tension that they could protect their land. They wanted another British colony on their southern flank. The Lenape land reimbursement was secondary.
The thousands of acres Penn deeded to his fellow Quakers were thus the fruits of three sets of wars: colonial wars over the Delaware Valley; debt-fueled English civil wars; and Native American wars fought over access to commercial resources. Much of original Quaker wealth in succeeding generations is indebted to this huge land transfer in the 1680s, either directly (we still hold some valuable real estate) or indirectly (the real estate’s sale could be funneled into promising businesses).
Not all of the fruits of war were secondhand and coincidental to Friends themselves. Many wealthy Friends in the mid-Atlantic colonies had slaves who did much of the backbreaking work of clearing fields and building houses. That quaint old brick meetinghouse set back on a flower-covered field? It was presumably built by enslaved hands.
And today, it’s impossible to step free of war. Most of our houses are set on land once owned by others. Our computers and cell phones have components mined in war zones. Our lights and cars are powered by fossil fuel extraction. And even with solar panels and electric cars, the infrastructure of the daily living of most Americans is still based on extraction and control of resources.
This is not to say we can’t continue to work for a world free of war. But it seems important to be clear-eyed and acknowledge the debts we have.
Near 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 taken five minutes to skim 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.
- 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” and material that is “adjacent in space” to give an almost spiritual argument for their superiority over deck-like presentations (think 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 part of the workshop – 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 correct.
He reminded us that when we’re in a room full of peers, everyone present has been filtered and selected over the years. You should assume the room 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 he’s 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 these days it’s more in a insider meta way). 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.”
Update: apparently some number of data visualization people have disliked his workshops (the comments confirm it’s not just the blogger). What I found fascinatingly wide-ranging they found rambling. Perhaps he’s tightened his presentation and I caught him on a good day. More likely, I think they came looking for a more technical discussion of datavis and was surprised that Tufte focused so much on critical thinking and communication skills. I have a particular soft spot for quirky and opinionated people who don’t follow scripts and Tufte’s detours all made a certain sense to me. But then I’m a philosophy major turned do-gooder writer/publisher. Your mileage may vary.
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:
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.