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Edward R. Tufte’s Envisioning Information

ei_bookcoverI picked up–and finished–Edward R. Tufte’s Envisioning Information yesterday. At 121 pages and filled with dozens of photographs, sketches, maps, charts, and graphs, it a mild read, but what a joy.

With illustration and insight drawn from Paul Klee’s critical writing, Galileo’s journals, and interviews and narrative excerpts from novelist Italo Calvino, Envisioning Information is designed for the humanist-statistician. Incorporating elements from graphic design, psychology, education theory, history, art, music, and architecture, Tufte makes it clear that there is no hard scientific or practical work that has value beyond its ability to be communicated to others.

Moreover, in the spirit of the Marshall McLuhan and other fundamental communications theorists, Envisioning Information is a model of the ideology it proscribes. The book is clearly written, graphics always appear on the same page on which the explanatory text appears (except in one instance to prove the importance of that point). Each page or two-page splash thoughtfully considers and balances white and dark space, text and graphics.

The book, also true to its ideology, is self-effacing. There is no grand statement that, at the close of the 20th century, the author and his field are poised on the edge of a whole new world. Computer graphics, really still in their infancy, are given special consideration for their special limitations (low resolution, and specifically the low resolution/high resolution frontier apparent at the computer-human interface) but are otherwise treated as just one more example of “flatland,” the theoretical 2D space that warps and constrains natural human thought and perception. Many, indeed most, of Tufte’s examples are from 16th-19th centuries. Certainly he recognizes advances in printing technology and overall human understanding to advances in envisioning and managing great information density; but he is also aware that these are largely mere refinements of previous methods. Tufte’s range of illustrations come from Galileo’s ingenious method of observing and tracking sunspots (in an age where conceiving of spots on the sun ran contrary to the church’s scholastic doctrine), to 18th century French dance manuals, to mid-20th century Japanese tourism pamphlets. He seems to have a special affinity for train schedules.

Tufte’s interdisciplinary, human-centered approach to visualizing data is not confined to superficial uses of examples from across time and cultures. It is his rare vision that allows him to see that a map and a table communicate the same information in the same way; it is his gift to be able to describe what he means when he says that. At one point, he compares a New York->New Haven train timetable to a local courthouse. The unnecessary columns of the timetable provide a similarly false sense of order to the timetable that the Doric columns do to the courthouse: “…the real work done in backrooms.” Magnificent.

The book contains no throat clearing. The short introduction is placed uncomfortably, cut across two-pages after the dedication and before the Acknowledgements. It is not treated as Chapter 0 as it is in most books on any subject (back to self-effacement, I presume). From there it jumps immediately into the concept of “flatland” (named after a very strange geometric romance by “A. Square”). Tufte waste no words in describing it or its subtle confundations explicitly. Rather he just describes its effects and trusts his readers to do the thinking on their own–another of the books ideological principals: graphics are not used because “information is confusing” or “audiences are numbskulls.”

As the book progresses, it becomes more and more useful to the novitiate or intermediate data visualizer. Each successive chapter contains more immediately practical advice than its predecessor. Tufte first presents good visualizations and failed ones. Later he will provide contrived good and bad examples to contrast. Later still he will show modest to good examples re-envisioned by him or his team to highlight the dramatic effects of minor changes in the use, thickness, or color of gridlines (for example).

As a How-To manual, the book does not offer much, which is unfortunate because I am very much in the “how-to” phase of learning data visualization. But the book was such a joy to read its impossible to critique its value based on my needs alone. I wanted and expected more of a how-to manual. What I got instead was a snapshot of 400 years (actually more) of humans slowly learning how to be understood. I learned how a 19th century re-envisioning of Euclid’s geometry invented Modern Art. I learned how to track sunspots. I learned why the Vietnam War Memorial is so entrancing and moving. And I learned that, from space, Earth resembles the Charles Schultz character Pigpen. I probably took away about five or six invaluable, timeless, and all purpose data visualization rules as well, which ultimately is the least of the books gifts.

Michael Pollan Says

Michael Pollan advises that shoppers should stay on the perimeter of the grocery store while shopping–where the bakery, dairy, and butcheries tend to be. When venturing down the aisles, his rule of thumb is “Only buy food your grandmother would recognize.” As long as you stick to the spirit of his comment and not delve too deeply into it semantically or operationally, that’s good advice. He’s trying to tell you to stay away from highly processed food derivatives, preservatives, and other ingestibles that are more like “lab materials” and less like food.*

As I was making myself a tuna melt for lunch, I was laughing at myself for adding Sriracha, the hot sauce deservedly beloved of hipsters and the subject of an Oatmeal comic. In my head, I began constructing a hypothetical, hipster tuna melt. Clearly it would need bacon (and more bacon), Sriracha, sashimi-grade tuna… I went on, and along the way began attempting to construct “Kitchen Tips for Hipsters” which would include such gems as “If you need to add ranch dressing, just don’t tell anybody;” and “There’s probably an ingredient you can replace with Sriracha.” By the time I had constructed my entire melt (and yes, I did add a smidge of [low-fat, yogurt-based] Ranch dressing instead of using my Extra-Virgin Olive Oil-based lite mayonnaise) I had a sandwich (with meat from a can) that my grandmother would have only vaguely recognized. Which reminded me of Pollan’s advice.


My grandmother would not have recognized a lot of the foods we consume. In my grandmother’s kitchen there were only three kinds of fat: butter, shortening, and the kind that rolls off pork products. E.V.O.O.—let alone herb-infused E.V.O.O.— would have been unrecognizable, accept maybe by way of comparison to vegetable oil, which as far as I know, she never used. My grandmother knew about cod and various river fish, but Mahi Mahi and red snapper would have made very little sense. Steak? yes. “Kobe beef”? Not a clue. I’ll give you ham, but prosciutto? Now, I am talking about my grandmother not any possible grandmother. An Italian, Greek, or Japanese grandmother would have had some of these on her shopping or To Do lists, but not mine.

So I wondered what my grandmother would have thought about my Instagram feed. Well, one thing I learned is that either I have less foodie friends than I used to, or that trend of taking pictures of your food is dying out. Here the first twelve food items in my Instagram feed and quick notes on whether my grandmother would have recognized them as food.

  1. Sushi—not a chance
  2. Woodhchuck Hard Cider—Kind of. My grandmother certainly knew about “cider” which, if I remember growing up well enough, was always hard, “apple juice” was not. But buying it –and having it filtered and force carbonated would have been odd to her
  3. Rudolphsuppe (made with reindeer cream)It’s possible, though unlikely, my paternal grandmother would have run into this dish if she also happened to run into one of the handful of Scandinavians in the Chicago suburbs at the time. My maternal grandmother would have had no clue for sure. The idea (fish with cream sauce) she probably could have handled, but Rudolphsuppe specifically, no way.
  4. Grilled Green Tomatoes—Well, Granny would have fried them, but otherwise there’s nothing unexpected here.
  5. Cannoliprobably not
  6. Ice cream cone(I think she would have had that one covered)
  7. Wild Orange Blossom Teavana[Lipton] Tea, yes. This? No.
  8. Philly cheesesteakAgain, the concept of chopped beef, cheese, and peppers on a bun, probably, the Philly Cheesesteak? I doubt it.
  9. Korean HibachiNot on your life.
  10. Berliner Weisse-style 1809Well, as its name implies, it was “food” long before my grandmother was born, and I know my grandmother knew what beer was, but Berliner Weisse? Nuh-uh
  11. Campside Session Ale(see above)
  12. Starbucks Iced LatteLike fat, there was only one kind of coffee in my grandmother’s house, robusta beans, Maxwell House specifically, but robusta nevertheless. 20 ounces? of Arabica coffee? iced? that you buy? for five bucks?!?! You might as well have come from outer-space.

Total tally: All twelve foods would have passed the spirit of Michael Pollan’s test, but only two of the foods would be foods my grandmother would have absolutely recognized.

Just to keep this somewhat on topic for the blog, it’s important to note that polices matter. The reasons my grandmother would not have recognized my hypothetical tuna melt and would have been confused by my Instagram feed is because she lived in an age that was poorer than our current one, that was less efficient, when trade agreements were more strict than they currently are, and when America was more homogeneous than it currently is. My grandmother spent most of her life in an era before the Baby Boomers were running the show, which had a range of implications all its own. As the world became more wealthy and more efficient it was the Baby Boomers and their affluent, educated children that reached out across the globe for more hedonic pleasures. It was the Boomers themselves, with their parents’ stories of the Depression to guide them, that nearly unilaterally (politically speaking) decided to start opening trade, which made such exotic faire cheap enough and accessible enough that our culture could latch on to it. Too often we think of the costs of our overseas adventurism, the “exporting of jobs,”and the fragementing of our culture. But in a very real way, average Americans all over the country, including Evansville, Indiana, are able to live in a manner completely alien to my grandmother. They can enjoy foods, drinks and styles of clothing that in the 1920s would have been reserved nearly exclusively for upper class East Coasters. But now, were she alive, she would at least understand if not actually consume a Wild Caught Albacore Melt with Sriracha and Spring Greens served on a low-carb, all-wheat wrap.

* As very famous scientist Neil De Grasse Tyson may or may not have said (according to a Facebook meme), we’re all just chemicals. Food is chemicals etc. So that last sentence is my attempt to rephrase Pollan while maintaining my scientific integrity.

It is somewhat off the spirit of Pollan’s advice, so what preceded is not meant to be an elbow in his ribs.

Colorado is getting bluer

This post is not really related to “technology” except that in order to make the video below I had to edit the Colorado county KML files in Google Earth based off data I got from Wikipedia. Then imported them into Quantum GIS and re-edited them. Then I had to save the resulting maps as PNGs and opened them in GIMP so I could crop and label them. I then took the exported GIFs and opened them in Windows Live Movie Maker, added transitions and captions. Finally I uploaded them to a YouTube account and linked to them here in my WordPress blog.

Some of this stuff I already knew how to do. Using QGIS and using images in Movie Maker were brand new. Obviously I hope my skills get better as I learn QGIS better…and Movie Maker or some better equivalent. Right now I’m really just trying to get a handle on Colorado politics.

The video below doesn’t necessarily say anything as it’s more or less stripped of context. It is of course interesting to see that Colorado’s blueness spread across the election and re-election of Obama. The gains in 2008 were particularly impressive, but it was “a Democratic year.” But one more county turned blue in 2012 and no counties returned to red despite 2012 being “a Republican year.”

The maps could be more informative if I graded the colors in terms of percent blue/percent red. Or if I simply showed the percent above/below some pre-chosen baseline.

It is also worth pointing out that all new blue counties were already adjacent to blue counties. So it’s not at all clear if those counties turned blue due to genuine changes of heart of red voters there or if the blueness was the result of immigration into those counties from blue-minded people from out of state choosing to live near other blue-minded people in state (or people moving from a high-cost blue counties out into nearby-but-cheaper red counties). Which is to say, I’m not providing this map as analysis itself. It’s really just here to document what I hope is a lot of progress in my ability to make useful maps and present them.

Syria’s Internet Disruption

On Thursday morning the Syrian internet went dark. This has several commentators wondering how easy could it be to shut down the internet. Apparently, in Syria, where there’s one major gateway which happens to be owned by the country, pretty easy.

I’m more interested in the other question, the one we asked after similar internet shutdowns in Egypt and Libya. Namely “will it matter”?

I suspect that it will not. There were revolutions and civil wars before there was Twitter and Facebook. It’s hard to imagine that were social media to have been around at the fall of the Soviet Empire there would have been more civil wars than we had. It’s possible of course. We can’t go back in time and relive the end of Communism with today’s internet.

Of course, a world that never had the internet is a different place than a world that had it and then lost. Certainly some greater than zero number of communications will be halted, rallies delayed, arms gone untraded etc. But I don’t think this will amount to more than just a minor hiccup for the rebels. And whatever hindrance it delivers to them, will also be delivered to some greater than zero number of government backers–not to mention all the unaffiliated citizens that want nothing more from the internet than to watch funny cat videos (or whatever the Syrian equivalent is).

Moreover, how many people in Syria are even on the internet? Not many. Its hard to imagine that too many more people joined the ranks of netizenry since the start of the rebel uprising. In 2010, nearly 4 million Syrians had access to the internet. A year later that number had only grown by about half a million. Assuming another half million people have joined since 2011, that puts nearly 5 million internet users…in a nation of just over 20 million, that’s not quite 25% internet penetration.

Although the Syrian shutdown is almost certainly more effective than the Egyptian one, my assumption is that, like its Arab Spring predecessors, it won’t amount to more than a minor bump for opposition and a temporary one.

As a matter of fact, if it was the Syrian government’s desire to upset the internet in order to inconvenience the rebels, then it would have been better to leave the internet up and monitor the communications thereon, because whatever the rebels replace the internet with, it will be harder, not easier, for the beleaguered government to track and intercept those communications.

Photo credit: Slate (“Syria’s Internet Just Went Entirely Dark” 11/29/12)

Assassination Technology Keeps Getting Better

American presidents are already pretty good at killing anybody they want, wherever they want, anytime they want. And they’re gonna keep getting better at it.

Another Peek Behind the Security Theater Curtains

How does TSA let you know whether you’ll get “randomly” screened? Here’s how.

More on Water in the Developing World

I know that when you think a website called “high-technocracy” you’d probably be thinking I’d blog more about computers and other silicon-based widgetry. Well, to be honest, it was in the hopes of forcing myself to think more about the role of computers in governance that inspired me to start this blog. Specifically I was interested in cybersecurity, cyberwar, and the growing threat of attacks (primarily in Latin America, my geographic focus). However, sometimes you have to go with what you know or what you’re already passionate about. And I am passionate about liquids. And the most important liquid is water.

I’ve already posted about new technologies that will hopefully provide improved access to clean drinking water which is a significant public health concern–and in my opinion a growing security concern. The US government is already developing plans for how to deal with domestic conflicts inside the US as water becomes more scarce, specifically in the southwest. This is serious business and not conspiracy-minded claptrap.

But water for immediate human consumption is only one part of the puzzle. The other one is access to enough water to irrigate fields. Irrigation itself is one of the modern marvels of agriculture and therefore civilization. Without the ability to irrigate fields, crop yields drop significantly and in some places this means well below subsistence levels, let alone marketable quantities.

So while high-technologists are developing new ways to get clean drinking water to those who need it, it’s important not to forget there are already moderately low-tech, cheap methods for getting water out of the ground and into irrigation ditches, as long as the people can be taught, and–if they lack them–provided with the proper supplies.

IT and World Politics

Charli Carpenter’s ISA presentation on social media and International Relations scholarship. If you aren’t in the IR fields–or in academia–pay closer attention to the first few minutes where she briefly touches on the role academics play in shaping the world, since I think that part may be more new information. The rest is good too, obviously.

Txt from Hillary. Really.

So by now you know that the Texts from Hillary meme took off like a shot, because of political nerds.

But did you know she submitted one herself?

Water Purification and the Developing World

In my heart of hearts I believe that most of the problems with the world are solvable through good governance. But creating institutions that reliably constrain human excess and focus energy into productive channels is very hard work. Too many people, bad people, can profit if they help create a system designed to fail. And so time and time again we see systems designed to fail and we watch as millions suffer while a few make out, literally, like bandits.

But lack of access to fresh water is a simple problem that can be solved unless leaders shift from being merely greedy to being actively evil. I mentioned in the headline “the developing world” because that’s where the issue is most pressing. If all the fresh water in Arizona dries up tomorrow the people there have plenty of places to flee to (for now). As poor as some people are in this country almost none of them are as poor as the median person in the developing world. Nevertheless, technologies like the ones posted here are going to be important for Americans too and I believe that will be the case sooner rather than later.

Anyway, many of you have probably seen the Slingshot that Segway inventor Dean Kamen demonstrated on the Colbert show a couple of years ago. These bad boys are great, but my understanding is they require too much power to be easily installed in the most rural areas.

Now there’s this, still in the prototype phase, but it looks very promising. “This can purify 35 liters of water in five minutes using only the power required to light a 100 watt bulb;” and it might sell for ~$100. If it can really purify 35 liters of water a day, that makes it about 8X more productive than the Slingshot and significantly less expensive. Probably doesn’t have the purification power of the Slingshot, but most places that need water probably don’t need quite that level of filtration anyway.

Trailer “Water Plasma Sanitation System” from Centro de Innovacion utpch on Vimeo.

This could be a game changer.