Homework from Edward Tufte

While you are twiddling your trackball thumbs waiting for the DACA explosion. something slightly useful.

I finally bought Edward Tufte’s classic of graphical design The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. It’s so good it has no competitors, like the Department of Water Engineering at the Technical University of Delft. Struggling to find a niggle against a nearly perfect work, my only complaint is that he compares his masterpiece to Strunk and White’s error-packed The Elements of Style: a “malign little compendium of bad advice” (Stephen Dodson); “the book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar” (Geoffrey Pullum). If you have any serious professional or even amateur interest in charts, buy Tufte’s book: he gets all your money as self-publisher, as commercial publishing houses refused to cede him the full graphical control he demanded. More fools they.

The book lucidly combines general graphical principles on “the revelation of the complex” and a plethora of striking and even amazing examples of good and bad practice. It would be a disservice to offer a dummy’s summary on this blog. What I tried to do was to investigate how much of his specific good advice, as opposed to the general principles, can be put into effect using a standard office software suite. I have LibreOffice. Most of the features apply in Excel, which does offer more: in some case misguidedly, in the 3D pyramid stacked histograms, with a variable lie factor as the data correspond to the heights of the pyramid slices while the eye reads their volume. If you want to make marginal or bubble plots, you will need specialised software like this or this.

I’ll take a worked example. Warning: the page below the fold is large, with many images, pushing the envelope on resolution. The WordPress software seems to muddy the resolution of images so you will need to click on each to get a proper view. Continue Reading…

News Chew

Last week the Federal Trade Commission approved orders settling charges against two companies selling caffeine-infused underwear.  Norm Thompson Outfitters, Inc. and Wacoal America, Inc. don’t have to recall the underwear made from fabric with microencapsulated caffeine, retinol and other ingredients, but they have to stop pretending the items will do anything but keep your junk in place. Also, they have to pay a combined about $1.5 million towards refunds for those souls that dared to believe.

Do you have questions? Naturally.

Curtain up 

TIC: Have you heard about this caffeine underwear?

TAC: No I haven’t. By all means, tell me about the caffeine underwear. For starters, huh?

TIC: The underwear is infused with caffeine. It’s shapewear and boxer briefs—

TAC: —that you wear? Like, on your body?

TIC: Yes yes of course. That’s the point.

TAC: How bizarre. So, the caffeine in the underwear is meant to leave the fabric and go into your body?

TIC: Well sure. But these two companies that sell them just got fined by the FTC.

TAC: Yea that sounds kind of shady. But, I dunno, I guess the nicotine patch is pretty standard. And don’t they sell transdermal patches with birth control hormones in them? Say, my initial opinion on the topic of caffeine underwear is beginning to change!

TIC: Oh, no no no. That’s not—I see that I’ve confused you.

Continue Reading…

The Only Way to Fly

I recently flew coach to Minneapolis. My seat space was small for a reason that may outrage you: I was not willing to pay for a bigger seat.

I ate a sandwich on board that I packed myself before hand, for a reason that may make your blood boil: I was not willing to pay the cost of the food served on the plane.

I took less luggage than I might have, for a reason you may want to refer to the International Court of Human Rights: I was not willing to pay the costs of checking a bag.

But in fact I am not angry at all and you don’t need to be either. The only way to fly, which eludes the people who issue a sea of complaints about the flights that they freely choose to take, is this: (1) Accept responsibility for the choices you make and (2) Don’t act oppressed when in fact you are incredibly privileged.

The reason airline seats are small is not because you are being persecuted, or that airlines are mean, or because they are raking in big bucks at your expense. We get the smallest, cheapest seats because that’s what we are willing to buy. American flyers care about pricing more than anything else, and a large proportion of them wish that even smaller, even cheaper seats were available for purchase. Airlines that expanded the size of seating throughout coach (like American Airlines) or offered 100% no frills business class flights priced between economy and typical business class (like Maxjet and Silverjet, both of which went bankrupt) lost money because flyers prefer cheapness above all. Airlines today have learned to sell us the product we actually want (Yeah I know, the nerve of these corporate fatcats…).

Also, for those of you who are upset that you got an owie on your knee during your family trip to Paris, remember that for over 99% of human history, our species was Earthbound. Even today, most people don’t get to fly anywhere, ever. If it feels unjust that your pillow wasn’t big enough, tell it to the billion human beings who live on less than one percent of your ticket price a day and they will quite rightly shove said pillow down your entitled piehole.

If you have privileges and define yourself as oppressed, you will be unhappy. If you make choices with perfectly predictable consequences and then resent those consequences, you will be unhappy. So don’t do those things and instead enjoy your flight. My seat to Minneapolis was very small. So what? For two hundred dollars I got to safely fly through the air like a bird, visit an interesting city and see dear friends. That’s a technological miracle and a gift to be grateful for. Thank you Sun Country Airlines!

Louis C.K. says all this better than I just did. Play this whenever you are tempted to feel sorry for yourself at 35,000 feet.

Photographing Politicians: What is Fair?

MICHELE-BACHMANN-NEWSWEEKDo you remember this controversial Newsweek cover of a crazy-looking Michelle Bachmann? Although it is generally agreed that media photos of real people should not be doctored (e.g., Time magazine’s darkened O.J. Simpson cover) or staged outright (e.g., The Falling Soldier), views differ on whether it is ethical to choose to publish a photo that is genuine but also makes the person look like a weirdo, clod or crook.

The photo below, first published I believe in The Independent, brought those debates to mind. Labour leader Ed Milliband looks like Godzilla, towering over humanity as he rages within sight of a strangely quiescent group of people. Like the Bachmann shot, the effect is unsettling.

Ed-Miliband

I asked a professional photojournalist and a professional filmmaker why this shot looks as it does, and they came up with the same answer: shooting at a really wide angle. This stretches the central figure, Milliband, at the top and bottom into his somewhat distorted, elongated shape. The picture being taken at an upward angle furthers the illusion of enormous height — his right elbow looks farther off the ground than the odd red and white curled backing, which is clearly taller than the standing figures. The wide angle is again deceptive here in making the people and backing appear farther behind him than they really are.

The photojournalist told me that you take the shots you can get, and if there is a crowd in the room and you have to shoot from the front with them pressing in behind you, a wide angle is what lets you get the shot. Fair enough. Also, the decision to take a photograph often must be made quickly, so I would not put the responsibility there anyway. The editor had time to sort through what shot would work best, and chose this one.

I suppose one could say “So what?”. Milliband really was there and he really did make the gesture and facial expression shown in the shot, so if it looks weird that is his problem just as it was Bachmann’s problem that she looked weird on the cover of Newsweek. But I wonder if the same shot would have been chosen by an editor for a politician who engaged in exactly the same behavior but who had a reputation for being suave and measured. Milliband already was mightily mocked for maladroit bacon sandwich eating, and this photo fits that narrative, as does this more recent one of his awkward interaction with a mendicant.

What I can’t know and would like to know is what photo array was available to the editors of all these Milliband stories and why did they pick the ones they did? Maybe they all looked pretty similar and the editor’s choice was not therefore consequential. Degree of awkwardness does not seem to be among the 10 most important things for the public to know about someone who wants to lead their country, so I hope it’s not being prioritized as a criterion in photo selection by editors, particularly if the technical demands of the shot artificially accentuate it.

My interview with the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt on the progress of health reform

If you want to catch up on health reform–how it’s going, how the 2014 election might affect things, what Republicans might try to change in ACA, and how the Supreme Court might cause further problems–this three-part interview with the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt has you covered. Larry is one of the most widely-respected experts on ACA. I really enjoyed our conversation. And I really enjoyed the illustrations produced by the healthinsurance.org team. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. I hope you enjoy it.

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 11.57.07 AM

Sunday Pub Quiz: Cartoons

Google not and see how you can do on this 10 question quiz about famous cartoons and their characters. Please post scores and comments/corrections at the end. Answers after the jump

1. What family lives on Evergreen Terrace?

2. Who does Underdog have in his arms here?

purbread

3. What famous animated character was originally inspired by a Clark Gable scene in the movie “It Happened One Night”.

4. Who voiced Robin on Superfriends and Shaggy on the original Scooby Doo, Where are You?

5. Who got the most rocks when he went trick or treating?

6. What country has exported more TV cartoons to the U.S. than any other?

7. J. Wellington Wimpy would gladly pay you on Tuesday if you would only give him what today?

8. What super-intelligent dog had a pet boy named Sherman?

9. Who lives at Megapolis Zoo and has a sidekick named Chumley the walrus?

10. He was a dastardly secret agent from the country of Pottsylvania, he worked for Fearless Leader and his evil partner was Natasha Fatale (aka Nogoodnik). Who was he?

Continue Reading…

A human being lives there: Grubergate

Jon made some really misguided and condescending comments that fueled the #Grubergate frenzy. So I am both angry with and sad for him today. In the apocalyptic politics of Obamacare, it’s easy to forget that he’s also a good person and a distinguished scholar who is getting the full internet-frenzy gang tackle right now.

Ezra Klein captures well my own sadness:

I’ll offer a slightly smaller final thought here: Gruber increasingly looks like a casualty of Obamacare. He’s become a liability to the law’s supporters — “I don’t know who he is,” said Nancy Pelosi, who had cited Gruber’s analyses during the health-care debate — and a villain to its opponents. He has been made into the worst comments he ever uttered on tape.

That’s a shame. Gruber tried to make it a better bill than it is. He tried to make what was in it clearer and more known than it was. And then — and this is where all the tapes come from — he traveled the country trying to explain it to people. And Gruber, as is perfectly clear now, was not an experienced political operator who knew how to talk carefully in front of a camera. The lesson other academics will take from his humiliation is that they best stay out of big policy debates, and they had really better make sure they never say anything interesting on tape.

Washington has always done this to people, but it’s happening more frequently, and more viciously, in the age of Twitter and YouTube. And while it makes sense in every individual case, it is, on the whole, bad for American politics. “It’s a healthy world where academics can speak their minds at conferences and the like without their words becoming political weapons in a bigger fight,” writes Tyler Cowen.

Cowen goes on to suggest that “perhaps we should subsidize people who end up looking foolish, rather than taxing them.” We’re not going to do that, of course. But we can at least try to be a bit more generous. We can remember people are more than the most controversial thing we’ve ever heard them say.

I am reminded of Philip Roth’s comments about a much more megawatt and sordid scandal. Roth also advised President Clinton to hang a banner outside the White House: “A human being lives here.” On all sides, we easily forget our humanity and compassion these days. The ecstasy of sanctimony is an ugly thing to see.

Obama in China

The CW on Obama’s climate deal with China has it about right: it is
(a) a huge diplomatic breakthrough, removing the main roadblock to an agreement in Paris to cut carbon emissions and get the world on a path to sustainability in a liveable climate;
(b) completely inadequate, as the actual emissions targets for 2030 to which the two committed – peaking by then “or earlier” for China, a 26% reduction from 2005 for the USA – fall far short of what is required. The EU has signed up to 40% cuts, and even that is too low for safety.

Obama has neatly snookered the GOP. They have been using the “what about China?” talking-point as an excuse for inaction. A dangerous one, as it concedes the principle that action is needed. Now they will have to switch to “China isn’t doing enough”. Which implies that there is some Chinese policy which would trigger US action, and we are in negotiation mode on overflight rights for the black helicopters. The target looks achievable on current policy, defined to include the coal regulations, so the cost argument doesn’t hold up either. It remains true that the next legislative heave will have to await 2016, and depends on a very unlikely Democratic sweep or (dream on) Damascene conversion by the GOP.

The Chinese side is more interesting. Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Onibaba

Onibaba

When movie aficionados think of Japan, their minds typically turn to Akira Kurosawa. That’s understandable, as one could make a plausible case for him being the best director in the history of cinema. But Kurosawa is far from the only brilliant filmmaker to hail from the Land of the Rising Sun. Another is writer-director Kaneto Shindô, the creative force behind this week’s film recommendation: Onibaba.

Shot in lustrous black and white under demanding conditions in 1964, Onibaba is a primal, sensual and eerie story of human beings struggling to survive. Emphasizing the mythological nature of the tale and its universal themes, the two central characters do not even have names. The older woman and her young daughter-in-law eke out a living in a swamp by murdering unfortunate soldiers who are lost or are fleeing the battles that rage across 14th century Japan. Strong, complex women characters were one of Shindô hallmarks, and he chose brilliant actors here to essay the roles: Nobuko Otowa (his real-life wife) and Jitsuko Yoshimura.

Into this small, brutal world eventually comes a disruptive force, an ex-soldier played by Kei Satô who informs the women that the link between them is gone: the older woman’s son is dead and the younger woman is therefore now a widow. The ex-soldier moves into the swamp, while keeping a lustful eye on the young woman, whose own uncontrollable sexual yearnings are memorably dramatized by her racing through the tall, undulating susuki grass (truly, the grass forest is the film’s fourth character). The older woman is consumed both by her own sexual frustration and her fear that the young woman will leave her, ending the bloody partnership that allows her to survive. So she concocts an unusual scheme to disrupt the relationship, which backfires as the movie takes a supernatural turn that will resonate with those viewers who are familiar with Buddhist folklore.

skullsThis is a raw film about how human beings’ animal nature emerges under harsh conditions. On display are unbridled lust, jealousy, greed and violence. Even the way the characters eat suggests animality. Hikaru Hayashi’s one-in-a-million score, a mix of Taiko, jazz and ghostly notes from wind instruments, is the perfect marriage of music with celluloid. Kudos are also in order for cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda for achieving technical brilliance on a hot, rainy and swampy set (It was so brutal that Shindô allegedly refused to pay the rebellious crew unless they finished the shoot). Like Saed Nikzat, Kuroda has the confidence to hold a still long shot and let the audience experience the environment and characters rather than forcibly directing our attention by moving from one quick cut to another. This is especially effective in his hypnotic, sensual images of the ever-swaying susuki grass forest.

Although the film is perhaps 10 minutes too long, Onibaba is completely original and fascinating. It’s also rather unsettling in the best artistic sense of that word. To fully enjoy this classic of Japanese cinema, try to get your hands on the gorgeous Criterion Collection re-issue.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of our prior recommendations.