Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte

Envisioning Information has been gathering dust along with Tufte’s other books that I got for “free” at his excellent one-day course last spring, but now that grad school is on hiatus for winter break, I finally picked it up and it was great.

It covers several topics about presenting information (mostly in print, but much is applicable to computer displays) like:

  • The use of color, to later and separate information presentions
  • Use of small multiples to present information. Lots of little identically formatted graphs/pictures are easy for the eye to discern differences and trends from, because one only has to “decode” the graph structure once
  • Techniques for presenting multidimensional data in space and time (like train schedules and planetary motion) in easy to read, two dimensional charts

The book is full of beautiful examples of well presented information such as train schedules and maps, along with what not to do, accompanied in places by case studies on improvements to the bad examples.

Coal: A Human History

I’m always intrigued when someone spends time to write a book bending the span of human history through the proverbial lens of a particular substance. I thought Salt: A World History was actually rather good, so when I saw Coal: A Human History for $5 at the MIT Press loading dock sale, I knew my proverbial ship had come in at long last!

The book documents, as you might imagine, the history of coal, and how, hidden away in boilers 30 stories tall, it continues to drive much of our society even today. The Chinese first burned coal centuries before the west did, but never got the steam engine/industrial revolution thing figured the way the British finally did. After an initial false start (the rich hated the smell and got it’s burning banned for a couple of centuries, finally relenting when all the forests were chopped down), coal “ignited” the industrial revolution via the need to drain deep coal mines, resulting in the steam engine, then a whirling vortex of synergy between iron, steam engines, transportation and coal.

The book is very readable, written in a smooth conversational tone that goes down easy even in T-ride-sized nibbles. Any person moderately interested in history will appreciate the way coal is weaved into so much of modern western history.

It turns out there are numerous one-topic books of this nature – check out this Amazon list someone created a list of books about one thing.

Walmart Movie

I saw Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price at a hippie free showing over at Simmons College on Tuesday night. If its not obvious by my seeing it, before I criticize the movie, I want to make clear that i am *anti Walmart* for a variety of reasons, not all of them economic.

My favorite fact from the movie (one of the few with another data point for comparison) is that the Walton family has given 6% of its wealth to charity. Bill Gates: 58%.

Walmart’s anti-union behavior is quite amazing in its sophistication, and you have to see the movie to believe it.

###Anecdotal Evidence

The movie was an ok documentary, but it only stands as a parade of anecdotal evidence- even that was glammed up. I mean, you don’t need to do an interview with a former loss control manager of a Walmart while he’s driving his truck down the Las Vegas strip, do you? There could have done with quite a few less of these stories, because they were all the same really.

###Lies With Numbers

W:THCoLP tries to convince the audience with a series of numbers on top of all the interviews, but they are all completely context free. Here’s a list of major number gaffes they made:

####Walmart “associates” on welfare

Lists of the numbers of Walmart employees on welfare by state are shown, but there’s no context to tell the audience what those numbers mean. They need to be broken down by percentage of employees in the state, state population, percentage of that state’s population on welfare. What would have been better is to show a comparison to other retail chains like Target or KMart to see if any of them use the state and federal government’s social welfare programs to subsidize their low prices as Walmart does.

####Walmart Subsidies

There was some whining about the way towns throw money at Walmart to make all the infrastructure improvements to bring one to town, and a case where Walmart moved to the next town over right when its tax abatement was to expire. I’m against towns giving away things like this to sports teams and walmarts alike (especially when mom and pop store can’t get this stuff) – if only all towns would not lay down and take it for megacorp to come to town! Here’s the list of subsidies, as flashed by on the screen:

$2.1million $1.2million $300,000.00

Yes, they made the $300k look bigger by adding all the zeros, *including the cents*. Do people fall for this?

Then there was this round of bellyaching by firefighters, police officers and teachers about how the money their dumb ass elected leaders gave to Walmart could have gone to teaching kids/fighting fires/gassing up cruisers, followed by this amazing train of logic:

1. Walmart subsidies drain towns of x million dollars (that, ignoring the fungability of money, apparently came directly from the school budget

2. There are 25 something million square feet of *vacant* Walmarts (from the old tax abatement bait and switch)

1. An average classroom has X square feet of space

1. That’s enough space in vacant walmarts to teach (huge free space)/(avg space per classroom) kids to read!!

Not sure what they were smoking when they came up with that sequence of “logic”

####Overwhelming lists
There were two cases where lists of occurrances scrolled by. In the latter, at the rah-rah, Walmart is beatable, go get ’em ending – a list of towns and cities that successfully lobbied their local governments to reject Walmart’s advances, I’m pretty sure I saw the same towns scroll by two or three times.

Another was the list of all the crimes that have occurred in Walmart parking lots in the first seven months of 2005, (because apparently 80% of crimes at walmart happen in the parking lot, yet most walmarts don’t have any parking lot security) but again there was no indication of crimes happening at other retail stores, or how crime prone those areas were anyways.

So I’m all done with that list of things. I’ll leave you with a ridiculous, yet priceless quote from Ron Galloway, the director of a competing *pro*-walmart movie (Why Wal-Mart Works and Why That Drives Some People Crazy):

A hundred and thirty-eight million people vote with their feet every week to go to Wal-Mart. And Americans are pretty smart. And
I think Wal- Mart if Wal-Mart were really doing something genuinely wrong, the American people would be able to figure it out
and not go.

I think we all know that a whole lot of the American people are asleep at the proverbial switch.

Public Radio Podcasts: or lack thereof

I’ve never thought much about podcasts – why do I want to listen to some pimply-faced nerd’s heavy breathing over his thoughts on Magic The Gathering? *Until Now…*

One thing (ok, the only thing) I miss about not driving to and from work is listening to the radio, specifically the news in the form of MarketPlace Money. Without a portable radio, and with a good chance of being underground on a train that time of day I’m pretty much out of luck – enter the podcast!

But wait, even though I can stream the show live when its on WBUR, or anytime from the marketplace website, they don’t offer podcasts. I can listen to the show anytime, anywhere there’s internet for free, but if I want to download the show to place and time-shift **offline** I am asked to fork over some money. It would cost them nothing extra (as in close to zero marginal cost) to get a small script written that will generate a podcast XML file and provide that file along with an MP3 of the show (at a negligable bandwith difference over streaming) .
I’m all for public radio making enough money to continue production, but it doesn’t ring true that podcasts are more expensive than streaming- especially since real audio server probably costs money, and none of the tools for podcasting have to.

Fortunately its pretty easy to record the realaudio stream to an MP3 and create an XML wrapper, and I can have my damn podcasts. (Unfortunately they don’t stream any faster than real time when recorded) Fair use? Isn’t it the same as if I recorded it off the radio directly?

Is the audible.com fee for podcasts just a tax on lack of scripting savvy?

Toby Lightman mini-show at the head of the charles

I first discovered Toby Lightman by randomly wandering around Music Midtown a year and a half, killing time before the next show I planned to see. She’s captivated the crowd with her fantastic voice, great songs and some fun covers – that’s a really long prelude to say I saw her again yesterday making the most of a cold and blustery mid-afternoon set at the Head of the Charles regatta, which I wouldn’t go to if not for the entertainment and people-watching, because as far as I’m concerned, if you’ve seen one boat row by, you’ve seen ’em all. I think she’s better live than on her album.. I wish I’d thought to bring her CD to get it autographed!

Weezer and Foo Fighters in Worcester

Saturday night we went to see Weezer and Foo Fighters in Worcester, Massachusetts at the DCU Center. Had floor tickets, which ruled! It was an **excellent** show. My personal highlight was two different perspectives on Kurt Cobain with respect to Foo Fighters.

– First was in the bathroom line, these two numbskulls behind me were talking about the relative merits of Weezer and Foo Fighters. One of them said he’d like Foo Fighters if they acknowledged Kurt Cobain and Nirvana – the (clearly) smarter of the two said someting about Dave Grohl setting out on his own.
– Second was this really high, drunk and loud man in the crowd who said something close to “I’m glad Kurt Cobain died, this guy has really made a name for himself”

There you have it, and something I agree with- **Foo Fighters are way better than Nirvana: Kurt Cobain died so that the Foo Fighters may live.**
Weezer was good but not great – I think I enjoyed their appearance in Hartford several years ago more, they seemed a little too chill for my taste. They did all their good songs, and the obligatory bring a fan up onto stage set-piece that is still fun.
Clearly there were people in the crowd that were there only to see weezer, because a whole bunch of people split from the floor after the weezer show.
###Foo Fighters:
Were awesome. Played all the classics, and a bunch of their new stuff. I was kind of bummed they didn’t slow down to play any of their acoustic stuff from the second half of their recent double CD, but what can you do? They also had a mini-U2 style light show, with 3 video screens, a bunch of really low-res LED displays, and some awesome laser light effects.
###DCU Center
Thumbs down. An email I got from there said they’re the “#3 music venue in the world according to billboard magazine”, but that had to be the subset of the world “in Worcester” or “in Western Mass”, or just some crazy parallel universe. I’ve seen shows at Madison Square Garden and the FleetCenter/Banknorth Garden and they’re definately better, and I think its highly likely there’s got to be another better arena “in the world”.

Ridiculous bathroom lines – and the mens rooms with 2 stalls and 2 urinals each. Who designed this “arena”? What happens during intermission of hockey games?
Then there were the hassles endemic to surburban “cities” – principally traffic in the parking garage that took well over an hour to empty. Let me jump on a train to get home any day.

**Update (10/17/2005):** Wrote to the marketing folks at the DCU center and received clarification that the statement actually means “#3 based on gross ticket sales among the top 10 US and British venus with capacities of 10,001 to 15,000 people”- Perhaps thats what should be at the bottom of the email, since the statement “#3 music venue in the world” implies some kind of quality to me.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

See this movie! I’ve loved Wallace and Gromit since my grandparents in England introduced me to them with a tape of the first two shorts one visit in the late 90’s. W&G; are tremendous characters, and the world they inhabit in Were-Rabbit is so wonderfully filled out by great characters (if stereotypical English villagers) and creatures, and a great plot. Lots of pop culture references in line with trend that unfortunately has befallen all animated movies these days (I mean how funny will half the jokes in Alladin be in 25 years?) , and the occasional off-color comment make doubtful its potential as an all time classic, but its a great ride. Probably one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.