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.

Toynbee Tile “Stickman”

As a Philly native the so-called Toyn­bee Tiles crept up so slow­ly in the built space that they blend­ed in with the nat­ur­al city streetscape and I missed Res­ur­rect Dead, the 2011 doc­u­men­tary of the mys­tery. It’s in my watch­ing queue. In the mean­time I’m going to start pho­tograph­ing any I see. Here’s the fig­ure the Inter­net has dubbed Stick­man in the inter­sec­tion of 13th and Arch in Philadelphia. 

Up Into The Cherry Tree

Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses
Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Gar­den of Verses

My moth­er died a few days ago. While I’m over­whelmed with the mes­sages of prayers and con­do­lences, at least at some lev­el it feels like cheat­ing to accept them too ful­ly. This isn’t a new con­di­tion. This is just the final moment of a slow-motion death.

A lit­tle over five years ago my moth­er was for­mal­ly diag­nosed with Alzheimer’s. It was quite brave of her to get the test­ing done when she did. This had always been her most-feared sce­nario for aging. Grow­ing up, we had befriend­ed an active elder­ly neigh­bor who had gen­tly died in her sleep after a minor slip on some ice. My mom thought that was the best exit ever. She swore Mrs. Gold­smith had come to her in a dream the next night to con­grat­u­late her­self, say­ing “See, I told you I was lucky!” For years after­wards, my moth­er con­vinced her­self that she would go in a sim­i­lar­ly ele­gant way.

My mom, Liz, must have sensed that Alzheimer’s was a pos­si­bil­i­ty when she sched­uled that doctor’s vis­it. The news didn’t come as much of a sur­prise to us fam­i­ly. I had been jok­ing for years that my mom seemed to have only twen­ty sto­ries that she kept on rota­tion. After she read a study that cross­word puz­zles keep your brain sharp as we age, she became an obses­sive cross­word puz­zler; when the Sudoku craze hit, she was right on top of it. She had brave­ly bought her first house in her late 60s. How proud she was. At the time she let us all know, repeat­ed­ly, that she would be leav­ing it “in a box.” Caulk­ing trim, replac­ing win­dows, and trou­bleshoot­ing a mud room leak that defied a dozen con­trac­tors became her occu­pa­tion, along with vol­un­teer­ing and watch­ing grand­kids. But by 2010, she must have known she wasn’t going to have Mrs. Goldsmith’s luck. It was time to adjust.

When she called to tell me the diag­no­sis, she couldn’t even use the A-word. She told me her “brain was dying” and that the doc­tor was putting her on Ari­cept. A quick Google search con­firmed this was an Alzheimer’s drug and a call with the doc­tor lat­er that after­noon helped map out the road ahead.

Alzheimer’s is a slow-motion death. She’s been dis­ap­pear­ing from us for a long while. Reg­u­lar out­ings became less fre­quent till we couldn’t even take her out to a near­by restau­rant for her birth­day. As words dis­ap­peared and speech began fal­ter­ing, I’d show her recent kid pho­tos on my phone and tell sto­ries to fill the emp­ty­ing space. Even­tu­al­ly she stopped show­ing inter­est even in this. On my last reg­u­lar vis­it with her, I brought the kids and we had lots of fun tak­ing pic­tures. Mom kept point­ing out at the phone’s dis­play as if it were a mir­ror. But con­ver­sa­tion was too dis­joint­ed and after a few min­utes, my kids start­ed wan­der­ing in ever widen­ing cir­cles look­ing for inter­est­ing but­tons and alarms to touch and pull and I had to round them up to leave.

In the past few weeks her for­get­ful­ness has extend­ed to eat­ing and swal­low­ing. Inter­ven­tion would only buy a lit­tle more time until she for­got how to breathe. Alzheimer’s is a one way trip.

On my last few vis­its she was most­ly sleep­ing. She’s was calm, preter­nat­u­ral­ly calm. Lying on her back, pale and peace­ful, she looked as if she might already be a body rest­ing in a cas­ket. Only the slight rise of sheets as she breathed gave away the news that she was still with us, if bare­ly. I felt awk­ward just sit­ting there. Some peo­ple are good in these kinds of sit­u­a­tions, but I self-consciously strug­gle. With lit­tle chance of inter­ac­tion, I struck on the idea of read­ing from a favorite book of poems that she had read to me on count­less nights as a child.  “Up into the cher­ry tree, who should climb but lit­tle me?” I don’t know if she heard me or pic­tured the cher­ry tree in her haze, but it was a way for us to be together.

The slow-motion nature of Alzheimer’s means she slept a lot until she didn’t. For rea­sons that go deep into biog­ra­phy, she was a won­der­ful­ly friend­ly per­son who didn’t have a lot of close friends any­more. It seems pecu­liar that one can walk upon the earth for so many decades and only have a dozen or so peo­ple notice your depar­ture. But then maybe that’s the norm for those who live deep into their eight­ies. Most of us will leave life with the same kind of qui­et rip­ples with which we entered.

Using VMWare Fusion to run Windows on a Mac

I just pur­chased a Mac­Book and have the joy of learn­ing a new set of rou­tines and pro­grams, all while recon­fig­ur­ing my ser­vices again. I’ve used Macs in var­i­ous work set­tings but the bulk of my devel­op­ment time has been on Win­dows, most recent­ly XP.

I will rec­om­mend VMWare’s Fusion for oth­er Win­dows users mak­ing the switch. Fusion is an $80 pro­gram that lets you run Win­dows through Mac (you have to pay for a fresh ver­sion of Win­dows, a copy of XP put me back $200 at Sta­ples). Apple has an alter­na­tive called Boot Camp which lets you install Win­dows so you can start up in it when you start your com­put­er. This pre­sum­ably runs faster (there’s no Mac OS over­head while in Win­dows) but Fusion is much more prac­ti­cal since I’m using simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with my Mac pro­grams. The speed is fine, even with lots of Mac pro­grams run­ning. Fusion is also more flex­i­ble about disk space allocations.

I’m quite amazed about what it can do. Netflix’s Watch Now ser­vice is unavail­able for Macs but runs fine through my Fusion-powered Win­dows XP. The Rhap­sody music client also works and I’m lis­ten­ing to music as I’m run­ning my Mac pro­grams. In an amaz­ing feat, I was able to use Rhap­sody to sync songs on my Palm T/X via USB cable. This is Win­dows XP run­ning atop Mac OS X sync­ing dig­i­tal rights managed-protected data with Palm OS over USB. Real­ly amaz­ing that it all worked!

I’m stick­ing with Win­dows XP because of all the night­mare sto­ries I’ve heard about Vista, but also because it uses less mem­o­ry and so will run faster. Also, I know XP very well and don’t real­ly rel­ish the thought of learn­ing a whole new sys­tem in addi­tion to Mac OS. I’m pre­sum­ing that over time I’ll use Win­dows less and less and will just have it for brows­er cross-checking pur­pos­es and to run the occa­sion­al Windows-only soft­ware like Rhap­sody and Net­flix.

Another Quaker bookstore bites the dust

Not real­ly news, but Friends Unit­ed Meet­ing recent­ly ded­i­cat­ed their new Wel­come Cen­ter in what was once the FUM bookstore:

On Sep­tem­ber 15, 2007, FUM ded­i­cat­ed the space once used as the Quak­er Hill Book­store as the new FUM Wel­come Cen­ter. The Wel­come Cen­ter con­tains Quak­er books and resources for F/friends to stop by and make use of dur­ing busi­ness hours. Tables and chairs to com­fort­ably accom­mo­date 50 peo­ple make this a great space to rent for reunions, church groups, meet­ings, anniversary/birthday par­ties, etc. Reduced prices are avail­able for churches.

Most Quak­er pub­lish­ers and book­sellers have closed or been great­ly reduced over the last ten years. Great changes have occurred in the Philadelphia-area Pen­dle Hill book­store and pub­lish­ing oper­a­tion, the AFSC Book­store in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Bar­clay Press in Ore­gon. The ver­i­ta­ble Friends Book­shop in Lon­don farmed out its mail order busi­ness a few years ago and has seen part of its space tak­en over by a cof­fee­bar: pop­u­lar and cool I’m sure, but does Lon­don real­ly needs anoth­er place to buy cof­fee? Rumor has it that Britain’s pub­li­ca­tions com­mit­tee has been laid down. The offi­cial spin is usu­al­ly that the work con­tin­ues in a dif­fer­ent form but only Bar­clay Press has been reborn as some­thing real­ly cool. One of the few remain­ing book­sellers is my old pals at FGC’s Quaker­Books: still sell­ing good books but I’m wor­ried that so much of Quak­er pub­lish­ing is now in one bas­ket and I’d be more con­fi­dent if their web­site showed more signs of activity.

The boards mak­ing these deci­sions to scale back or close are prob­a­bly unaware that they’re part
of a larg­er trend. They prob­a­bly think they’re respond­ing to unique sit­u­a­tions (the peer group Quak­ers Unit­ing in Pub­li­ca­tions sends inter­nal emails around but hasn’t done much to pub­li­cize this sto­ry out­side of its mem­ber­ship). It’s sad to see that so many Quak­er decision-making bod­ies have inde­pen­dent­ly decid­ed that pub­lish­ing is not an essen­tial part of their mission.

Strangers to the Covenant

A workshop led by Zachary Moon and Martin Kelley at the 2005 FGC Gathering of Friends.

 

This is for Young Friends who want to break into the pow­er of Quak­erism: it’s the stuff you didn’t get in First Day School. Con­nect­ing with his­tor­i­cal Quak­ers whose pow­er­ful min­istry came in their teens and twen­ties, we’ll look at how Friends wove God, covenants and gospel order togeth­er to build a move­ment that rocked the world. We’ll mine Quak­er his­to­ry to reclaim the pow­er of our tra­di­tion, to explore the liv­ing tes­ti­monies and our wit­ness in the world. (P/T)

Per­cent­age of time: Wor­ship 20 / Lec­ture 30 / Dis­cus­sion 50

 

Extended Description

We hope to encour­age Friends to imag­ine them­selves as min­is­ters and elders and to be bold enough to chal­lenge the insti­tu­tions of Quak­erism as need­ed. We want to build a com­mu­ni­ty, a cohort, of Friends who aren’t afraid to bust us out of our own lim­it­ed expec­ta­tions and give them space to grow into the aware­ness that their long­ing for deep­er spir­i­tu­al con­nec­tion with shared wide­ly among oth­ers their age. Our task as work­shop con­ven­ers is to mod­el as both bold and hum­ble seek­ers after truth, who can stay real to the spir­it with­out tak­ing our­selves either too seri­ous­ly or too lightly.

Mar­tin and Zachary have dis­cov­ered a Quak­er tra­di­tion more defined, more coher­ent and far rich­er than the Quak­erism we were offered in First Day School. In integri­ty to that dis­cov­ery, we intend to cre­ate a space for fel­low­ship that would fur­ther open these glimpses of what’s out there and what pos­si­bil­i­ties exist to step out bold­ly in this Light.

Sun­day: Introductions
The most impor­tant task for today is mod­el­ing the ground­ed wor­ship and spirit-led min­istry that will be our true cur­ricu­lum this week. In a wor­ship shar­ing for­mat we will con­sid­er these questions:

  • What brought me to this workshop?
  • What did they fail to teach me in First Day School that I still want to know?

Mon­day: What is this Quakerism?
Today will be about enter­ing this ground­ed space togeth­er as Friends, begin­ning to ask some ques­tions that reveal and open. How do I artic­u­late what Quak­erism is all about? What ideas, lan­guage, and words (e.g. “God”, “Jesus” “Light”) do use to describe this tra­di­tion? Today we start that dia­logue. At the end of ses­sion we will ask par­tic­i­pants to seek out an old­er Friend and ask them for their answers on these queries and bring back that expe­ri­ence to our next gathering.

  • Wor­ship. Read­ing of select­ed texts from jour­nal and Bible
  • Present ques­tion: When some­one asks me “what is Quak­erism?” how do I respond.
  • Mar­tin and Zachary will share some thoughts on this ques­tion from oth­er Friends
  • Jour­nal­ing on Query
  • Dis­cus­sion of ideas and language.

Tues­day: The Mys­ti­cal Tra­di­tion and Gospel Order
We enter into the lan­guage and fab­ric of our Tra­di­tion at its mys­ti­cal roots. Ask­ing the ques­tions: What does God feel like? Intro­duce ear­ly Quaker’s talk about God. What does it feel like to be with God? What is Gospel Order?

  • Wor­ship. Read­ing of select­ed texts from jour­nals and Bible
  • Follow-up on pre­vi­ous day’s discussion/homework what new came into the Light overnight?
  • Jour­nal­ing on Query: When have I felt the pres­ence of God? Describe it in five senses?
  • Ini­tial dis­cus­sion and shar­ing of thoughts and ideas.
  • Intro­duce some ideas from ear­ly Friends and oth­ers on this Query. How have oth­ers (Jesus, Isa­iah, Mer­ton, Fox, Day) spo­ken of this experience?
  • Intro­duce themes of Spir­i­tu­al Prac­tice: If Quak­erism is about ask­ing the right ques­tions, how do we get into the place to hear those ques­tions and respond faith­ful­ly? We have already been incor­po­rat­ing devo­tion­al read­ing into our time togeth­er each morn­ing but we will intro­duce into the Light of Dis­ci­pline as such here. Nam­ing of oth­er prac­tices, pre­vi­ous­ly acknowl­edged and oth­er­wise, with­in the group.
  • Intro­duce ‘Spir­i­tu­al Dis­cern­ment’ themes for the fol­low­ing day’s session.

Wednes­day: The Roots of Friends’ Dis­cern­ment Tra­di­tion and the Testimonies
We delve into the archives, the dusty stuff, the stuff First Day School didn’t get to: the preach­ing from the trees, the prison time, the age George Fox was when he was first incar­cer­at­ed for his beliefs, what the tes­ti­monies are real­ly about and where they came from. Today is about tak­ing the skele­tons out of the clos­et and clean­ing house.

  • Wor­ship. Read­ing of select­ed texts from jour­nals and Bible
  • ‘Let’s talk his­to­ry’: Ear­ly Friends, the Mak­ing of The Soci­ety, and the Dis­cern­ment Tra­di­tion. [Mar­tin and Zachary may cov­er this, or we may arrange to have anoth­er Friend come and share some thoughts and infuse a new voice into our dialogue]
  • There are lots of tes­ti­monies: what are ours? Name some. How to they facil­i­tate our rela­tion­ship with God?
  • What’s up with “Obe­di­ence”, “Plain­ness”, and “Dis­ci­pline”? How do we prac­tice them?

Thurs­day: Friends in a Covenant­ed Relationship
We grow into our roles as lead­ers in this com­mu­ni­ty by con­sid­er­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ties and the hur­dles in deep­en­ing our covenant rela­tion­ship. We begin with con­sid­er­ing spir­i­tu­al gifts, and then con­sid­er ques­tions around min­istry, its ori­gin and its dis­cern­ment. We will take up the task of con­sid­er­ing what our work, what piece of this respon­si­bil­i­ty is ours to carry.

  • Wor­ship. Read­ing of select­ed texts from jour­nals and Bible
  • Jour­nal­ing on the Queries: What is alive inside of me? How are my spir­i­tu­al gifts named and nurtured?
  • What are the tasks of ministry?
  • What are the tasks of eldering?
  • What are the struc­tures and prac­tices in our month­ly, quar­ter­ly and year­ly meet­ings that we can use to test out and sup­port lead­ings? How do these struc­tures work and not work. Clear­ness com­mit­tees? Trav­el­ing Friends? Spir­i­tu­al nurture/affinity groups?
  • What is hold­ing us back from liv­ing this deep­ened rela­tion­ship? What is our respon­si­bil­i­ty to this covenant and this covenant community?

Fri­day: The Future of Quakerism
We begin the work that will occu­py the rest of our lives. The par­tic­i­pants of this work­shop will be around for the next fifty or more years, so let’s start talk­ing about sys­tem­at­ic, long-term change. We have some­thing to con­tribute to this con­sid­er­a­tion right now.

  • Wor­ship. Read­ing of select­ed texts from jour­nals and Bible
  • Where do we go from here? Mar­tin will present on emer­gent church. Zachary will present some thoughts on ‘Beloved Community’.
    Many have talked about deep com­mu­nion with God and about covenant com­mu­ni­ty. Many have spo­ken our hearts and giv­en voice to the pas­sion we expe­ri­ence; now it’s on us what are we going to do about it? Where is it happening?
  • Dis­cus­sion (maybe as a fish­bowl) Where do we envi­sion Quak­erism 50 years from now? 100 years from now?

External Website: Quaker Ranter, Martin’s site.