26 November 2009

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on the memoir of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Formerly the editor of Elle, Bauby suffered a stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome, a condition in which he remained conscious but unable to speak or move anything but his left eye. He dictated his book by blinking. (His speech therapist would read the letters of the alphabet in decreasing order of frequency, and he would blink at the letter he wanted to use.)

The title is a reference to Bauby's corporeal imprisonment and to how he escapes from it with his vivid imagination. Director Julian Schnabel does a good job portraying the terror and frustration of Bauby's impotence (some riveting camerawork here, if you can believe that) as well as his fanciful daydreams.

Diving Bell is a moving story of mind over matter and the power of the human spirit. Bauby's condition arouses pity, yet the focus is not on that but on his humanity. We get a view into his wishes, vices, regrets, dreams, and memories. I appreciated the fact that Schnabel doesn't lionize Bauby or overdo the sentimentality. Bauby is a courageous but flawed man, and it is only his warts that make him recognizable as a real person to those of us who have been more fortunate.

Recommended.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you are having a good Thanksgiving and that you have much to be thankful for (yes, even if you not an American!).

Among my blessings I count my good health; good friends; my best friend; a wonderful family; a job where I feel I can advance not just innovation (i.e. novelty), but progress; and being able to enjoy life in general with few worries.

25 November 2009

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

After reading Visual Explanations I was intrigued enough to pick up Tufte's classic, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Overall it is quite good. With numerous examples, Tufte shows when graphics and tables can be used to illuminate the truth, and he presents some pieces of a theory to govern their design. Tufte also calls out the use of misleading data graphics in newspapers, ads, corporate publications, and other sources.

Some takeaways:

  • Graphics are frequently considered a crutch to lean on when text is deemed boring; but, when used judiciously, they can actually present and reveal data in a much more information-dense and easily-retained manner than can text. To make effective graphics takes statistical training, not just artistic training.
  • Creating graphics with "integrity" is, in large part, making sure that the relative sizes perceived by the eye are commensurate with the relative sizes in the real data. Tufte displays examples of many tricks that people have used in order to make differences appear more or less significant than they are. And it's not just about how the data are drawn but also often about what data are drawn.

Tufte also presents some general design principles, including:

  • Use as little ink on the page as you can, within reason. Avoid redundancy and remove inessential elements.
  • Avoid busy-looking textures and other "chartjunk."
  • Arrays of small similar graphics ("small multiples") are an elegant way to present multivariate data.
  • Integrate graphics with the narrative text when possible.

I was struck by Tufte's lament that computer graphics often evoke the thought "Isn't it remarkable that the computer can be programmed to draw like that?" rather than "My, what interesting data." This seems to be no less true in 2009 than when it was written. Given Tufte's opinions about PowerPoint, I do wonder what he would say about Apple's Keynote. PowerPoint presentations are usually merely inane or unattractive; Keynote presentations, with their typical distorted 3-D charts, are often downright misleading.

While I thought most of Tufte's book was valuable, he occasionally appears to make dubious logical jumps and comparisons to prove his point:

  • He speaks of a 2.2 megapixel grayscale astronomical survey map being subdivided into "2,275,328 rectangles" as if it is equivalent to a table with as many entries. The eye can perceive macro- and micro-structure in a graphic but not every last detail with fidelity. Thus the effective content of the image is much smaller than 2,275,328 elements. Throughout, Tufte shows some odd fascination with numbers like these and seems to labor under the delusion that their exact magnitudes are meaningful.
  • Tufte does some rethinking of how box plots, axes, and other graphical elements might look. But he seems to be driven only by his maxim of "reduce ink." In his favorite box plot alternative the different components are barely distinguishable from each other. The simplicity of the resulting graphic does not nearly make up for the fact that the information therein is much less easily perceived.

Still, I recommend this book. Reading it is like flipping through a curated gallery of data graphics designs, many of them strikingly elegant. It is an easy read (I read it in one sitting), but as many of us have to marshal data to make an argument once in a while, we could use some advice on how to do so effectively.

Where The Wild Things Are

I watched Where The Wild Things Are. I did not enjoy it very much. Max and the beasts are supposed to be a portrait of children, but I just found them to be alternately grating, self-absorbed, and depressing. And whatever worthwhile ideas there were in the film were just lost in a vast sea of inanity (beasts throwing rocks at each other, etc.). It just felt too long. I might have enjoyed a short (or a 48-page picture book) with the same content, though.

03 November 2009

Tomato soup

In 2005, Brian Wansink et al. administered a novel experiment to determine the effect of outside stimuli on satiation:

Wansink's research on bottomless bowls of creamy tomato soup (hidden tubes imperceptibly keep refilling them) won [a 2007 Ig Nobel prize] in the nutrition category. [...]

The research, published as a featured article in the journal Obesity Research in 2005, showed that people eating from soup bowls that don't empty ate 73 percent more soup than those eating from normal bowls, said Wansink.

(Source: Cornell University news)

When presented with a cornucopia of soup, most subjects were completely oblivious:

[We] brought 62 people in for a free soup lunch [...] we found that those with refillable bowls ate 73% more soup, but did not feel any more full [...] Only 2 individuals ever realized [what] was happening.

(Source: mindlesseating.org)

I always found this kind of incredible, the fact that a bottomless bowl of tomato soup could go unnoticed, until I realized:

Tomato soup is freakin' delicious. I am pretty sure I could have tomato soup at breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day this winter.

01 November 2009

Visual Explanations

Edward Tufte's Visual Explanations is a complement to his earlier works The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Envisioning Information (neither of which I have read).

Engineers like myself may benefit most from the first few chapters, in which Tufte presents case studies that demonstrate the importance of data representation in statistical graphics. Whether the graphics obscure or reveal cause/effect can mean the difference between life (as when John Snow identified tainted well water as the cause of the London cholera epidemic of 1854) and death (as when NASA made the catastrophic decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger in cold weather on 28 January 1986). Tufte calls attention to some important issues in data presentation, but I think his criticism of the NASA engineers is not really justifiable (hindsight being 20/20 and all).

Visual Explanations is ostensibly about showing cause and effect graphically, but there are many nuggets throughout that apply to informational graphics more generally. Tufte gives a suite of graphical "design patterns" that are good to keep in mind: eliminating unnecessary clutter, facilitating direct comparisons, using the right amount of contrast, and so on.

The later sections of the book have less specific practical advice but plenty of striking images. The last chapter focuses on the idea of a "visual confection" (Tufte's terminology, I believe)— an image, frequently fanciful, synthesized from smaller images or parts, that tells a coherent story. Perhaps the most poignant of these is the public safety message from The Washington Post, "Why is the Potomac River So Dangerous?", which was later reproduced on a metal sign next to the river.

One takeaway is the notion that a printed graphic is often much more illuminating than a photograph. A photograph can only show you what something looks like. But a cutaway, schematic, or other illustration can show you how something is, by virtue of calling attention to the important details, suppressing the unimportant ones, and indicating cause/effect or the passage of time. Illustrations are an effective and efficient way of conveying an idea directly to the mind's eye.

The book itself is an examplar of the strategies that Tufte advocates. Illustrations appear inline or near where they are referenced in the text. There are no awkward page breaks that require the reader to flip back and forth between an illustration and the text that describes it. The case studies are bite-sized and easy to digest.

Recommended, and an easy read.

This is one of those books that colors one's perception of the world. For example, I can't help but think that some Google Maps engineers took some of Tufte's advice to heart in their recent visual redesign. Many of the maps styles are now more harmonious and suppress unneeded detail and distractions.