Edward Tufte and classical intellectual inquiry

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-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 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 the­o­log­i­cal argu­ment for their supe­ri­or­i­ty over deck-like pre­sen­ta­tions (think Pow­er­Point) that can obscure impor­tant data.
  • He urged us not to pan­der to our audi­ence: Con­sumer sites show that data can be pop­u­lar: the New York Times’s web­site has 450 links; ESPN’s has tables atop tables and yet peo­ple read these sites 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 execs 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 there must be a long list of 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 and coun­seled us to not be too quick to dis­miss cri­tique. You’ve got to do the hard work to see 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 thun­dered 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 dis­sent­ing views.

This was a much-needed ser­mon for me and I nod­ded along along. As some­one who pro­fes­sion­al­ly ampli­fies opin­ion, I’m often in the mid­dle of peo­ple in debate (I’ve been an actor in these con­flicts in the past, though these days I gen­er­al­ly play a role some­where between an agent and medi­a­tor). It’s good to see intel­lec­tu­al debate as a process and to remem­ber that it can take years. “This con­cludes the ther­a­peu­tic por­tion of today’s course”, he con­clud­ed, before going back to visualizations.

He end­ed by show­ing us time­less first-editions of beau­ti­ful sci­en­tif­ic works by Galileo and Euclid. He felt a gen­uine appre­ci­a­tion of being part of an intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion. He was a mas­ter and for this day we in the audi­ence 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. What I found fas­ci­nat­ing­ly wide-ranging they found ram­bling. Per­haps Tufte has tight­ened his pre­sen­ta­tion or I caught him on a good day. More like­ly, I think they came look­ing for a more tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sion of data visu­al­iza­tion 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.

Hashtagging politics

I’ve been most­ly sit­ting out the Hillary vs Bernie debates. I’m in a late vot­ing state and I have bet­ter things to do than get into Face­book flame wars. I have a nat­ur­al polit­i­cal bias toward Sanders, but I respect Hillary Clinton’s accom­plish­ments and would rather see a cen­trist than any of the increasingly-insane GOP candidates.

With that said, I’m notic­ing a num­ber of retweet­storms of anti-Sanders quips fill­ing my Twit­ter feed. I’m sure the infa­mous “Bernie Bros” exist, but most of the dis­mis­sive posts I see are from Hillary sup­port­ers. A lot of them seem to sim­ply be mad that he would run (and be run­ning so well). Oth­ers attack him for things said or done by sup­port­ers with no con­nec­tion to the Sanders campaign.

I don’t know if it’s my observ­er bias giv­en my pol­i­tics and/or the make­up of friends but my dis­tinct impres­sion is that my Bernie-supporting friends are excit­ed by Bernie and his ideas while my Hillary-supporting friends are mad at Bernie and his ideas and followers.

“My secretary just walked in wearing pants.… and she looks terrific!” and other mom stories

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My mother’s death notice is in today’s Philadel­phia Inquirer.

Here’s anoth­er instal­la­tion of mom sto­ries, orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for a longer obit­u­ary than the one run­ning in today’s paper.

A sin­gle par­ent, she earned an asso­ciates degree at Rid­er Col­lege in Tren­ton and worked as a sec­re­tary at a num­ber of Philadelphia-area based, include Women’s Med­ical Col­lege and the Pres­by­ter­ian Board of Pub­li­ca­tions. In the mid-1960s she became an exec­u­tive sec­re­tary at the newly-formed Colo­nial Penn Life Insur­ance Com­pa­ny. An office fem­i­nist, she liked recount­ing the sto­ry of the day in the 1970s when the women of the office unit­ed to break the dress code by all wear­ing pant suits. A senior vice pres­i­dent was on the phone when she walked into his office and is said to have told his caller “My sec­re­tary just walked in wear­ing pants.… and she looks terrific!”

When Colo­nial Penn lat­er start­ed an in-house com­put­er pro­gram­mer train­ing pro­gram, she signed up imme­di­ate­ly and start­ed a sec­ond career. She approached pro­grams as puz­zles and was espe­cial­ly proud of her abil­i­ty to take oth­er pro­gram­mers’ poorly-written code and turn it into effi­cient, bug-free software.

In the ear­ly 1990s, she moved into her own apart­ment in Jenk­in­town, Pa. She reclaimed a short­ened form of her maid­en name and swapped “Bet­sy” for “Liz.” Dur­ing this time she became a com­mit­ted atten­der at Abing­ton Friends Meet­ing. As clerk of its peace and jus­tice com­mit­tee, she worked to build the con­sen­sus need­ed for the meet­ing to pro­duce a land­mark state­ment on repro­duc­tive rights. As soon as it was passed she said, “next up, a minute on same-sex mar­riage!” In the late 90s, that was still con­tro­ver­sial even with LGBTQ cir­cles and I imag­ine that even the pro­gres­sive folks at Abing­ton were dread­ing the thought she might put this on the agenda!

In her late 60s, she bought her first house, in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neigh­bor­hood. She loved fix­ing it up and babysit­ting her grand­chil­dren. She nev­er made any strong con­nec­tions with any of the near­by Quak­er Meet­ings only attend­ing wor­ship spo­rad­i­cal­ly after the move. When she was diag­nosed with Alzheimer’s Dis­ease in 2010, she took the news with dig­ni­ty. She moved into an inde­pen­dent liv­ing apart­ment in Atco, N.J. and con­tin­ued an active lifestyle as long as possible.

Digging into the first selfie, from Philly!

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This guy in Streetview is stand­ing near the spot where the world’s first #self­ie por­trait was tak­en in 1839.

Robert Cor­nelius was one of the first peo­ple to try to repro­duce Louis Daguerre’s pho­to­graph­ic tech­nique after news of the break­through reach Philadel­phia. A chemist work­ing at his family’s gas light­ing com­pa­ny, Cor­nelius start­ed exper­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent chem­i­cal com­bi­na­tions until he found a way to reduce expo­sure times so that a per­son to sit still long enough for a por­trait. In Octo­ber 1839 he took a pic­ture him­self “in the yard back of his store and res­i­dence, (old) 176 Chest­nut Street, above Sev­enth (now num­ber 710), in Philadel­phia,” accord­ing to an oral his­to­ry pub­lished half a cen­tu­ry lat­er (PDF). Cor­nelius recounts:

It was our busi­ness to make a great vari­ety of arti­cles of plat­ed met­al. Very soon after­wards, I made in the fac­to­ry a tin box, and bought from McAl­lis­ter, 48 Chest­nut Street, a lens about two inch­es in diam­e­ter, such as was used for opera pur­pos­es. With these instru­ments I made the first like­ness of myself and anoth­er one of some of my chil­dren, in the open yard of my dwelling, sun­light bright upon us, and I am ful­ly of the impres­sion that I was the first to obtain a like­ness of the human face.

Remark­ably, in 2014, the Cor­nelius and Co. build­ing is still there on Chest­nut Street, though bare­ly rec­og­niz­able, with an extra floor on top and exten­sive façade changes. It’s a dis­count drug store. The back is the nar­row alley named Ion­ic Street, home to dump­sters and peo­ple want­i­ng to stay out of sight. The yard is to the right of these dump­sters. With #self­ie such a pop­u­lar hash­tag, Cornelius’s pic­ture has cir­cu­lat­ed on a lot of inter­net lists as the “world’s first self­ie.” But it’s his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance is far greater: it is the first pho­to­graph­ic por­trait of our species. I’m not typ­i­cal­ly one for hyper­bole, but we humans start­ed see­ing our­selves dif­fer­ent­ly after that portrait.

I orig­i­nal­ly assumed the build­ing on the right of the alley stood where the yard had been but a satel­lites turns up a sur­prise: the yard is still there! Look­ing at the 710 prop­er­ty from above, the build­ings fac­ing Chest­nut and Ion­ic are sep­a­rate – with a large open space in between! There are two sec­tions that look almost to be gar­den beds.

Yo Philly, how has 710 Chest­nut Street not been snatched up and turned into a muse­um of pho­to­graph­ic his­to­ry? The first floor could focus on nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Philadel­phia inno­va­tion, with the still-existent inner court­yard turned into a tourist des­ti­na­tion? It would be like cat­nip. What self-respecting mod­ern tourist wouldn’t walk the few blocks from Inde­pen­dence Hall to take their pic­ture at the very site of the world’s first self­ie? I know Philly typ­i­cal­ly doesn’t respect any his­to­ry past 1776 but come on!

Desert temptations


Yes­ter­day I was home with the kids on comp time and got to par­tic­i­pate in their reli­gion ses­sion (my wife keeps them to a sched­ule in the sum­mers and reli­gion makes for a qui­et half hour midday). 

My 9 year old was read­ing the pas­sage of Jesus’s temp­ta­tion in the desert found in Matthew 4. I find it such a relat­able sto­ry. No, no one with pointy ears and a red tail has offered me a king­dom late­ly, but there are a num­ber of nor­mal human ele­ments nonetheless. 

To start with, Jesus is fast­ing and liv­ing with­out shel­ter for forty days. I know I become less of the per­son I want to be when I’m hun­gry, tired, and stressed. The tempter also prof­fers a test to see if God cares. That too is famil­iar: how often do we want some­thing from close fam­i­ly and friends but hold back to see if it’s offered. “Oh, if they real­ly cared I wouldn’t have to remind them.” We do this with God too, con­fus­ing chang­ing states of for­tune with divine favor rather than wel­com­ing even hard times as a oppor­tu­ni­ty for growth and understanding. 

One of my favorite parts of the Lord’s Prayer is the plea that we not even be led to temp­ta­tion. There’s a cer­tain humil­i­ty to that. Jesus might be able to resist the sweet promis­es of the tempter even when cold and hun­gry, but I’d rather skip the tests. 

It’s hard enough liv­ing in this world in a state of humil­i­ty and coöper­a­tion. None of us are per­fect, start­ing with me, and we all cer­tain­ly have plen­ty of room to grow. But it’s nice to know that we don’t have to face the tempter alone. God knows just how hard it can be and has our back. 

The language and testimony of the fire alarm

Care­ful and delib­er­ate dis­cern­ment held in a man­ner of unhur­ried prayer is fine in most instances, but what’s a group if Quak­ers to do when a fire alarm goes off? Do we sit down in silence, stay cen­tered there some num­ber if min­utes, and then open up a peri­od of min­istries to reach toward discernment. 

Of course we don’t. Who would? Like any group if peo­ple in the mod­ern world, we assem­ble with­out ques­tion and leave the premis­es. But why? Because of shared lan­guage and testimonies. 

A ring­ing bell does not, by itself, con­sti­tute a call to action. Pow­er up your time machine and bring your battery-powered alarm sys­tem back a few thou­sand years and set it off. Peo­ple would look around in con­fu­sion (and might be afraid if the alien sound), but they wouldn’t file out of a build­ing. We do it because we’ve been social­ized in a lan­guage of group warning. 

Ever since our school­days, we have been taught this lan­guage: fire alarms, flash­ing lights, fire pull box­es. We don’t need to dis­cern the sit­u­a­tion because we already know what the alarm means: the like­li­hood of immi­nent danger. 

Our response also needs lit­tle dis­cern­ment. We might think of this as a tes­ti­mo­ny: a course of action that we’ve real­ized is so core to our under­stand­ing of our rela­tion to the world that it rarely needs to be debat­ed amongst ourselves. 

I must have par­tic­i­pat­ed in a hun­dred fire drills in my life­time, but so far none of the alarms have been fires. But they have served a very real purpose. 

When we do media in an advo­ca­cy sense, most of our time is spent devel­op­ing and rein­forc­ing shared lan­guage and obvi­ous courses-of-action. We tell sto­ries of pre­vi­ous sit­u­a­tions and debate the con­tours of the tes­ti­monies. We’re ready­ing our­selves for when we will be called to action.