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.
From Patricia Dallmann:
With what equanimity does George Fox see himself as he is in the old creation, once he has entered the new: Then the Lord gently led me along, and let me see his love, which was endless and eternal, surpassing all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, or can get by history or books. That love let me see myself, as I was without him; and I was afraid of all company; for I saw them perfectly, where they were, through the love of God which let me see myself
How don’t I know Fonts In Use, which catalogs typography use both across genres and media. Breaks down font use by genres (e.g, kids, music, sports, religion) and media (books, web, packaging). Very cool.
I’m just coming back from a book club (adult conversation? But… but… I’m a parent… Really?). The topic was Jane Jacob’s 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The six of us gathered in a Collingswood, N.J., coffee shop were all city design geeks and I could barely keep up with the ideas and books that had influenced everyone. Here is a very incomplete list:
- Strongtowns blog and podcast. Charles Marohn
- Geography of Nowhere. James Howard Kunstler’s 1993 book on suburban sprawl, which I loved at the time.
- The Big Sort. Bill Bishop, 2008.
- The Great Good Place. Ray Oldenburg. Popularized the “third places” concept of places people can gather together outside of home and work (as example: the coffee shop in which we met, Grooveground, didn’t seem to mind six people nattering on about urbanism until closing time).
- Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk, “Your body language shapes who you are” (in our context, we were suggesting a correlation between road rage and the physical poses of driving)
- The End of the Suburbs. Leigh Gallagher, 2014
- Fighting Traffic. Peter D. Norton
- Wrestling with Moses. Anthony Flint’s 2009 book that goes behind the scenes of Jane Jacob’s planning battles with the near-mythic highway builder Robert Moses, a subtext that underlies Death and Life but is mostly just hinted at.
- Antifragile: Things That Gain with Disorder. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 212.
- Jacobin Magazine has published pieces about how Jane Jacob’s insights and language have been coopted by market forces. See “Liberalism and Gentrification” and “The People’s Playground.”
- I kept thinking about a big issue Jacobs kepts skirting about: race. It’s really impossible for me to look at urban patterns without thinking about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” Decades of redlining and the racial components of who gets mortgages is a big factor in our social geography (see also TNC’s Atlantic colleague Alexis C. Madrigal’s “The Racist Housing Policy That Made Your Neighborhood” and ponder why charming Collingswood is 82 percent white while adjoining Camden is only 18 percent).
- Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York. Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez. A graphic novel of Robert Moses (no way!). “How New York Became New York” is an review of the novel.
Update: And also, from Genevieve’s list:
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams, for its absurdist humor around the bureaucracies of planning
- Green Metropolis. David Owen,
- “What’s Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse,” an article by Adam Mann in Wired on the phenomenon of induced demand.
- Vision Zero Initiative
- The Pine Barrens. John McPhee, the classic which I brought up.
- The Power Broker. Robert Caro.
- The Ecology of Commerce. Paul Hawken
- Organizing in the South Bronx. Jim Rooney
- Re: race: Dalton Conley’s Being Black, Living in the Red and When Work Disappears by William Julius Wilson.
- Re: bicycles: Urban Bikers’ Tricks & Tips. Dave Glowacz
Excuse me for the next six months while I read. 🙂
Continuing my recent post in reimagining blogs, I’m going to go into some contextual details lifted from the Quaker publications with which I’m either directly associated or that have some claim to my identity.
My blog at Quaker Ranter dates back to the proto-blog I began in 1997 as an new homepage for my two year old “Nonviolence Web” project. The new feature was updated weekly with excerpted material from member projects on Nonviolence.org and related organizations that already had independent websites. We didn’t have RSS or Twitter then but I would manually send out emails to a list; we didn’t have comments but I would publish interesting responses that came by email. The work was relaunched with blogging software in 2003 and the voice became more individual and my focus became more Quaker and tech.
The articles then were like they are now: reversely chronological, with categories, tagging, and site searching that allow older material to be accessed. The most important source of archive visibility is external: Google. People can easily find material that is directly relevant to a question they’re addressing right now. In many instances, they’ll never even click through to the site homepage, much less categories, tags, etc. As I said in my last post, these first-time visitors are often trying to understand something new; the great majority bounce off the page and follow another search result on a matter of a few seconds, but some small but important percentage will be ripe for new ideas and connections and might be willing to try new associations.
But it’s random. I’m a bit of a nerd in my chosen interests and have been blogging long enough that I generally have at least a few interesting posts on any particular sub-topic. Most of these have been inspired by colleagues, friends, my wife, and random conversations I’ve found myself in.
Some of the most meaningful blog posts – those with legs – have involved me integrating some new thinker or idea into my worldview. The process will have started months or sometimes years before when another spiritual nerd recommended a book or article. In the faith world there’s always books that are obscure to newcomers but essential for those trying to go deeper into their faith. You’ll be in a deep conversations with someone and they’ll ask (often with a twinkle in their eye) “have you read so-and-so?” (This culture if sharing is especially important for Friends, who traditionally have no clergy or seminaries).
A major role of my blog has been to bring these sorts of conversations into a public realm – one that can be Googled and followed. The internet has helped us scale-up this process and make it more available to those who can’t constantly travel.
When I have real-world conversations now, I often have recourse to cite some old blog post. I’m sharing the “have you read” conversation in a way that can be eavesdropped by hundreds.
But how are people who stumble in my site for the first time going to find this?
The issue isn’t just limited to an obscure faith blog. Yesterday I learned about a cool (to me) blog written by a dad who researches and travels to neat nature spots in the area with his kids and writes up a post about what-to-see and kid-issues-to-be-aware-of. But when it’s a nice Saturday afternoon and I find myself in a certain locale, how can I know if he’s been anywhere nearby unless I go through all the archives or hope the search works or hope his blog’s categorization taxonomy is complete?
What I’m thinking is that we could try to create meta indexes to our blogs in a wiki model. Have a whole collection of introductory pages where we list and summarize relevant articles with links.
In the heyday of SEO, I used to tag the heck out if posts and have the pages act as a sort of automated version of this, but again, this it was chronological. And it was work. Even remembering to tag is work. I would spend a couple of days ignoring clients to metatag each page on the site, only to redo the work a few months later with even more metadata complexity. Writing a whole shadow meta blog indexing the blog would be a major (and unending task). It wouldn’t garner the rush of immediate Facebook likes. But it would be supremely useful for someone wanting to explore an issue of particular interest to them at that moment.
And one more Quaker aside that I think will nevertheless be of interest to the more techie readers. I’ve described Quakerism as a wiki spirituality. Exhibit one is the religious movement’s initial lack of creeds or written instruction. Even our pacifism, for which we’re most well known, was an uncodified testimony in the earliest years.
As Friends gained more experience living in community, they would publish advices – short snippets of wisdom that were collectively-approved using consensus decision making. They were based on experience. For example, they might find that members who abused alcohol, say, or repeatedly tested the dress code might cause other sorts of problems for the community and they’d minute a warning against these practices.
These advices were written over time; as more were approved it became burdensome to find relevant advices when some issue started tearing up a congregation. So they were collected into books – unofficial at first, literally hand-copied from person to person. These eventually became official – published “books of disciplines,” collections of the collective wisdom organized by topic. Their purpose and scope (and even their name) has changed over the ensuing centuries but their impulse and early organization is one that I find useful when thinking about how we could rethink the categorization issues of our twenty first century blogs and commenting systems.
Came across an 2004-era page of mine (the Baby Theo homepage) via an Archive.org search today. Here was a description on the sidebar:
This website is part of a informal emerging network of Friends that are reaching across our institutional boundaries to engage with our faith and with each other. The “ministry of the written word” has often sparked generational renewal among Friends and there’s something afoot in all these comments and linkbacks. There are lots of potential projects that can be launched over the new few years (books, workshops, conferences, etc) so if you like the direction of this site and the questions it’s asking, please consider a donation to the nonviolence.org site.
I’m part of a discussion at the Pendle Hill conference center outside Philadelphia next month. Everyone’s invited. It’s a rare chance to really bring a lot of different readers and media producers (official and DIY) together into the same room to map out where Quaker media is headed. If you’re a passionate reader or think that Quaker publications are vital to our spiritual movement, then do try to make it out.
Youtube, Twitter, podcasts, blogs, books. Where’s it all going and who’s doing it? How does it tie back to Quakerism? What does it mean for Friends and our institutions? Join panelists Charles Martin, Gabriel Ehri and Martin Kelley, along with Quaker publishers and writers from around the world, and readers and media enthusiasts, for a wide-ranging discussion about the future of Quaker media.
We will begin with some worship at 7.00pm If you’d like a delicious Pendle Hill dinner beforehand please reply to the Facebook event wall (see http://on.fb.me/quakermedia). Dinner is at 6.00pm and will cost $12.50
This is part of this year’s Quakers Uniting in Publications conference. QUIP has been having to re-imagine its role over the last ten years as so many of its anchor publishers and bookstores have closed. I have a big concern that a lot of online Quaker material is being produced by non-Quakers and/or in ways that aren’t really rooted in typical Quaker processes. Maybe we can talk about that some at Pendle Hill.