Edward Tufte is an expert on information presentation and visualization design, and can fairly be said to be among the designers and statisticians who made foundational contributions to the contemporary age of data visualization. My current work has me making a fair number of presentations, and I have found myself looking for better ways to discuss complicated systems and projects. When I saw that Tufte’s one-day traveling roadshow/course on those topics (and many others) was coming to town, I jumped on the opportunity to attend. The course and accompanying books by Tufte have a wealth of technical information on offer (the books, by the way, are self-published beauties of the highest quality), but the core things I took away go much beyond data and analysis. Indeed, the most significant lessons are about taking communication seriously — something relevant to most of us, and which I have been trying to do with new seriousness ever since.
The first key insight is an assertion that making a presentation, be it for persuasion or explanation, is not only an intellectual but a moral act. It is inextricably bound with one’s credibility and reputation, on one hand, and scrupulously honest, accurate depiction of one’s material, on the other. The audience has the reciprocal obligation to engage the presenter’s material with the same care and attention. The presenter and audience really are in it together.
This approach brings something valuable but often left unrecognized to our communication: A sort of partnership that is at once intuitive but often hard to remember amidst so many rote, lifeless meetings. I very much appreciated the suggestion that there must be some element of partnership, of intellectual collaboration, in the presentation of data and information. It reminds us to take seriously our roles not only as presenter but as audience, and allows us — requires us, really — to hold colleagues accountable for their end of the bargain.
Second, and stemming directly from the commitment above, is Tufte’s approach to the most common mode of presenting itself: “The cognitive style of Powerpoint” that many are familiar with. In opposition to the information-bare model encouraged by slide software, Tufte admonishes a determination to use whatever methods are appropriate and necessary to communicate the intended content. Don’t do anything that does not serve an understanding of your information; and to Tufte, boxes, shadows, logos, gradients, and five-bullet slides never, ever serve your case — and yet they are all but inescapable when using software, like Powerpoint, that impose simplification rather than explanation.
This becomes the crux for Tufte’s exhortations about tools: They are merely plumbing to the material that really matters. If diving carefully and exhaustively into your data requires tables, then use really, really well-designed tables; if explaining your project requires a detailed narration, then tell that story in the most complete and informative way possible. This requirement is about quality and completeness, and the requirement that those needs, rather than any kind of dedication to methods or software (and never fashion!, as tempting as it might be to try to cram information into an attractive style), dictate utterly your methods.
During the course of a day, Tufte uses examples and data from sports, engineering and art to make his case, and I found it an engaging and inspiring set of lessons. Setting aside for a short time his wonderful science of analysis, Tufte offers to a very broad audience a re-humanizing of the sterile, numbing and dumbed-down world of business communications. It’s not easy to bring these lessons back to most places of work, but it’s certainly worth some effort.
- This article is dated 2011-02-27 09:18 and is posted to school-work, with tags business
In the past 30 days or so, I estimate that I have driven approximately 5,000 miles, between Flagstaff, Tucson, Fort Collins, and Salt Lake City. About 900 of those miles were driven to growing sound of doom from under the hood. Fortunately, while it sounded terrible, the unusual hole in the muffler flange could be welded up at the muffler shop for $90. Alas, not so for the $50 joint at the end of the driveline. That repair involved replacing the entire piece, to the tune of $800. (Sternly-worded letter to Subaru mentally composed; never sent.) Getting hustled to replace my wiper blades at the Quik Loob didn’t bother me so much after that.
The driving season commenced with a trip to Tucson for my dissertation defense. I am happy to say that the defense itself went really well. I have some revisions to make, but am looking forward to carrying them out. Having essentially passed, and with some really constructive feedback shaping what I work on next, is extremely freeing, mentally. It gives me some renewed enthusiasm for a project that was feeling pretty stuck by the time I finished. Also noteworthy is that we dragged the department a little bit further into the Jobs Age, with Kieran sitting in on the defense via iChat. Slick.
I had an interesting conversation, afterwards, (was that with you, Jeff?) about how the department has an odd culture with regard to how these defenses work. It borders on the Fight Club Rule: Don’t Talk About The Dissertation Defense. This may happen everywhere, actually, and it’s likely less a rule than a function of how defenses take place: Students frequently return to town for a day or so (as in my case), do the defense, and then head back to jobs/home/research elsewhere. This doesn’t leave much time afterward for younger students to get a feeling for what the experience is like. It’s a really sharp contrast to the normal workings in a department like mine, where grad students extensively share information and experiences about things like prelims and oral exams. If someone had said to me earlier, “Hey, it will be an interesting and constructive conversation,” I would have been much more pleasant to be around the week before.
The several weeks since have rushed past: Christmas in Fort Collins (where I recommend the Armstrong Hotel, and we ducked in and out between blizzards, but only just and that by cutting a week-long trip to three nights) a few days at home, and a week in Utah. I finished a paper along the way, and have been bunkered back in Flagstaff for the past handful of days, wondering just how cold it can get here. (Several mornings of -12F, so far, suggest the answer is “pretty cold.”)
So what next? Seattle is what’s next. On Friday I trundle a few packages to the post office and then make my way to the airport — which I hope will not be closed in the face of another winter storm headed our way — for a twelve-week excursion to the Pacific Northwest. I’m headed to Redmond, more specifically, where I’ll be an intern at Microsoft’s Community Technologies Group. Doing what? I’m not exactly sure; the research group is involved with all kinds of neat stuff that dovetails nicely with my interests in collective behavior and new forms of organization. But I do know that doing sociology with an assortment of cool tools, data, and diverse colleagues will be great. It will be a very different kind of environment from what I’m used to, and I hope to be both challenged and invigorated by that. And, hey, Seattle is a great place to spend some time, though I hear they’ve had quite a winter, so far. I’m bringing my long underwear.
- This article is dated 2007-01-18 14:20 and is posted to sociology, school-work
, with tags dissertation
The Resident Ecologist submitted a revised manuscript to a Blackwell-published journal in early March. This was after a pretty solid couple of months of revisions in response to a first review. The revised version was sent off electronically (no multiple copies, no floppy disk in the mail) and had a positive response from the editor—it was accepted—three days later.
Two weeks later, word came that the manuscript had finished up at the copy-editor’s desk and was headed to the typesetter. This morning, a lovely page proof document was deposited in the inbox. Not bad, Science Guys, not bad at all.
I know that there are all kinds of vagaries to publishing, but it’s striking how much difference there is between journals. The article that I recently got published spent over a year in somebody’s drawer between the time it was accepted and the time I ever saw a page proof—and several more months to get to press. So, I wonder: Is this an argument in favor of gigantic publishers gobbling up journals, a difference between the publishing models of different fields, or just two remarkable outliers at each end of the continuum?
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- This article is dated 2006-04-27 08:45 and is posted to school-work, sociology
, with tags ecology
Two quick items:
- I didn’t know that a bunch of presses are running blogs: See the blogs of Oxford University Press, Chicago, MIT, and Yale. Pretty cool.
- I found all these having stumbled on this entry about HSAs by Florida State sociology professor Jill Quadagno. Briefly, Quadagno argues that HSAs do not create a functioning market for health care services, and warns of a consumer backlash against the plan.
- This article is dated 2006-02-22 11:12 and is posted to books, school-work
, with tags health
It was a good trip to Philadelphia. For once, the conference hotel was located just blocks from my more affordable lodging (the Hampton, which itself was a really nice place to stay: Free cookies at the registration desk, wifi, breakfast, really nice staff, high ceilings in our room on the 11th floor), and in easy walking distance to a plethora of bars and restaurants. The first two days I was there were pretty miserable due to the weather—Hot and humid, really nasty—but after a great storm on Sunday night, the temp cooled off nicely.
The Tina-organzed pub get-together was a good time, a nice chance to catch up with a few friends and put faces to names. I went along to the baseball game, which only got exciting for about thirty seconds with two outs in the ninth, but which was still pretty enjoyable.
The meetings themselves were also mostly good (notwithstanding book-mad students). My days were pretty packed with meetings and chance get-togethers, and my roundtable session, in which I discussed an early dissertation chapter, went well—Lots of good questions and feedback made me excited to return to work.
So much for an invigorated return, however: I staved it off through my whole day of travel yesterday, but by evening a nasty cold had caught up with me. It turns out to be rather tough to think hard about my work while running a fever.
- This article is dated 2005-08-18 14:30 and is posted to sociology, school-work
, with tags asa
Douglas Johnston has put together an index card-based version of his neat DIY planner template, and he posted some commentary on it over at 43 Folders. I’m currently using a combination of a paper planner written up in a moleskine and emacs’ planner mode to do this sort of work, and have found it to be a pretty nice system.
- This article is dated 2005-06-13 09:14 and is posted to school-work, with tags 43things
Kieran is right about summer vertigo: Just when I get a good plan put together, I get overconfident and start piling on. My core summer project is organizing dissertation data and drafting some working papers; so far, it’s actually going fairly well. The past few days I’ve been re-reading some economic sociology, particularly Nigel Dodd’s The Sociology of Money, and I’m assembing (gasp) a draft of the first chapter of what will become an actual, real-life dissertation.
So how about the non-work? Kieran mentions fiction; I’m working my way through Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on my off hours; I have to return to Utah in a couple of weeks for another dentist visit (hooray); I’m doing quite a bit of mountain biking in the nearby national forest; and in general I’m having a great time in Flagstaff, where it was about 70 degrees F today.
- This article is dated 2005-06-07 22:06 and is posted to school-work, sociology
... or, what happens to your recently-completed syllabus after the correspondence office gets done re-typing it in Microsoft Word.
- This article is dated 2005-05-18 13:28 and is posted to technology, school-work
, with tags latex
A few words and phrases that will prompt me to google your paper:
- is not unqualifiedly true
That’s just the way it is.
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- This article is dated 2005-05-11 14:44 and is posted to school-work
Salon has a review of the interesting-sounding House of Lies, by Martin Kihn (subtitled “How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time”). Kihn portrays consultants as hardworking but essentially useless, sounding a rather new-institutional note:
Kihn ultimately suggests in a moment of epiphany that the real reason firms hire consultants is stunningly simple, and ridiculous: It makes companies feel good. For the most part, it turns out, companies using consultants aren’t doing all that badly (if they were, they couldn’t afford the consultants). Firms that solicit the services of consultants are actually some of the biggest, richest corporations in the world, and they’d do fine without extra help. So why do they hire them? Because they can, Kihn says—because consultants, like limos and fancy office parties, are a luxury, and companies like to indulge in luxuries. In Kihn’s telling, consultants are like extremely well-educated corporate call girls. The clients don’t care to listen to what consultants have to say; they just want to see them go through the motions.
Insofar as they can’t actually offer specialized skills or in-depth knowledge, consultants are for Kihn the sort of red-headed stepchild of the business world, hated by workers, dismissed by managers, and demeaned by their own working conditions. In the review, Farhad Manjoo suggests that readers would find themselves feeling sorry for management consultants, the poor misunderstood wretches that they are, but I think that’s going a bit far; the benefit of consulting still seems to be making scads more money than most of the rest of us, and last I checked that did seem to matter—“latent absurdity of the American corporate world” or not.
- This article is dated 2005-04-11 21:30 and is posted to sociology, school-work
Selling a house, I have found in the last couple of weeks, is a lot like conducting survey research. You work furiously, vigorously, exhaustively in preparation. You agonize over the minutia and at least twice a day you doubt the entire damned project. Then, after weeks of effort and deliberation, you start distributing the survey and go ahead and list the house.
And then, at full speed, you run into a wall, because at that point the success of all that work depends essentially on either having something that somebody wants, or getting strangers to be nice to you. So you wait, and every time the phone rings (or your inbox chimes) you lunge to see if you have a response. It’s like a homemade ulcer kit.
But the similarities don’t stop there, oh no, they go much deeper. At some point, after investing so much work and time, you really start identifying with your project. Incomplete surveys? Rejection! Inadequate oohing and aaahing at your open beam ceilings, mature native landscaping, and designer light fixtures? Rejection!
And not even spring break can save you.
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- This article is dated 2005-03-11 08:45 and is posted to house, school-work
, with tags dissertation
The grading part
I enjoy teaching, I really do. I like interacting with students, I love the occasional moments in class when they seem to get it—and show it, by coming up with something I had never thought of that, upon their explanation, makes perfect sense and is even better than the example I gave. But grading? Grading is hard. It hurts my eyes, my writing thumb, sometimes my very soul.
On the day I finally finished reading and grading all their papers (on which I have to say once again, google is really a bad writing strategy), Kevin Drum points to a Brad Delong post on student papers:
- Nobody ever told them—or they have forgotten, or they are too stressed for time—to revise. They are handing in first drafts.
- Nobody ever told them that if you are going to hand in a first draft, an easy way to significantly improve it is to, when you are finished, cut the last paragraph from the paper and paste it at the beginning. Your final sum-up paragraph—written at the end, as you have by trying to write down what you think discovered what you really do think—is almost always going to make a better first paragraph than the first paragraph that you wrote.
I tell my students about no. 1 all the time, and I’ve repeatedly found no. 2 to be true in my own writing. It not only works for whole papers, it works within paragraphs—I find that after a couple of sentences of mucking about, I often realize that my third or fourth sentences fit just right when placed at the beginning. I’m sure this would mortify Professor McClintock (by far the hardest but best writing instructor I ever had), who told me that without a good title, a writer doesn’t know what he or she is writing about; I imagine that would apply to an introductory paragraph, as well, but revisions have to fit into the process somewhere. I think he agreed with that, after all.
The much more part
Kevin Drum hits a double, with a second post, this one about voting rights, prompted by a Jonah Goldberg op-ed. It reminded me of a nice comment on the subject of voting by Clay Shirky. Shirky writes:
In the line at the polling booth, the guy with the non-ironic trucker hat and nothing other than an instinct for who he trusts cancels the vote of the politics junkie who can tell you the name of Joe Lieberman’s Delaware field manager.
In Is Social Software Bad for the Dean Campaign?, I suggested that Dean had accidentally created a movement instead of a campaign. I still believe that, and this is one of the things I think falls out from that. It’s hard to understand, when you sense yourself to be one of Mead’s thoughtful and committed people, that someone who doesn’t even understand the issues can amble on down to the local elementary school and wipe out your vote, and its even harder to understand that the system is designed to work that way.
You can ring doorbells and carry signs and donate and stay up til 4 in the morning talking with fellow believers about the sorry state of politics today, and you still only get one vote. If you want more votes than that, you have to do the hardest, most humbling thing in the world. You have to change someone else’s mind.
Internet culture is talking culture, so we’re not used to this. In our current conversational spaces, whether mailing lists or bulletin boards or weblogs, the people who speak the loudest and the most frequently dominate the discussion.
Imagine if a mailing list had to issue a formal opinion on the issues discussed, and lurkers got a vote. The high-flow posters would complain that the lurkers votes would not reflect the actual discussion that took place, merely the aggregate opinions of the group, and yet that is how the primaries work. Talking loudest or most or even best means nothing.
If you made it this far, give yourself the Total Drek Commendation for Wading Through Long Posts. I never realized how many surface my house has until I tried to clean all of them (in some cases, cleaning, stripping, sanding, staining, and then varnishing them). But we seem to be about done, after all: The house officially goes on the market tomorrow, at which point you can all look it up on the internet and judge me.
Amid all these transition-related events, I have even accomplished some dissertation work, but I’ll leave discussion of that for later. Short version: Survey research is hard.
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- This article is dated 2005-03-08 11:58 and is posted to school-work, misc
, with tags college
In my office late this evening (Heather’s picking me up, but she’s “waiting for a map to come off the plotter”—code for “making me sit around for an extra half hour”), I’m reading the restaurant section of the New York Times online. There’s something about reviews of restaraunts I’ll never visit that I sort of enjoy (dinner for two at Masa for $1,000). And I like the occasional recipe, too.
So I’m reading about risotto, and at about the same time I realize that a senior faculty member is standing in my doorway, I see that the entire right third of my browser window is filled with a close-up of enormous breasts only barely contained by a frilly bra. It’s a special Valentine’s Day ad for Victoria’s Secret, of course.
Lesson for the day: Boss-key!
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- This article is dated 2005-02-10 14:17 and is posted to school-work, with tags boobs
Class is well underway, and again I’m teaching medical sociology. A good portion of the first half of the semester is dedicated to making sense of the relationships between social variables—like socioeconomic status, gender, race—and health outcomes. For example, we know from decades of data that SES affects just about every measurable aspect of health: Lifespan, infant mortality, heart disease, and cancer rates. The benefits of money and status are tangible.
Across twenty years, the semi-skilled workers in class IV eventually become healthier than the professional workers of class I in the 1970s, so it’s clear that overall health has increased. However, the increase is far sharper for those in class I than in class V, indicating that the benefits of better medical treatment and improved technology accrue more quickly to those at the top. Status pays off in substantial and persistent ways.
In the U.S., we have similarly suggestive data that show how much more likely those without private insurance are to fall into the lowest category of a ranking of health.
Plenty of people in the lowest health category do have private insurance, but, conversely, very few people who lack reliable, private coverage find themselves in the highest health category.
This is the sort of material I’ve been presenting to my class the past handful of days, using it to motivate the core puzzle: How do we make sense of relationships like these? The argument made by scholars is that SES is intimately tied to factors that put us at risk of exposure to disease, and because there are so many such proximal factors, treating them individually has little effect on the outcome. That is, the poor tend to stay sick even as we improve sanitation, promote vaccinations, and address the other proximal causes of disease. At the level of health care it’s a similar story, namely that social variables structure our access to care and the quality thereof—in dozens of ways.
It’s common for students to not quite get this; they’re young, usually well-insured, and mostly healthy. Persistent disease just isn’t something they’re familiar with, and their own experience tends to make it a little challenging to get a handle on the bigger, macro picture of social causes of disease. This is understandable, I think, and figuring out how to evaluate personal experience in the context of broader data is part of the sociological project. So the more important starting point is some willingness to work within the parameters of the project; without that willingness, the puzzle motivated by the data is unimportant or even suspect, and that’s before we even reach the question of mechanisms—the place where notions of individual responsibility really collide with constraints on the ability to do healthy things, and it becomes far harder to avoid the on-coming political debate.
This pretty quickly turns into a sort of meta-question about what we want to get out of education and educating. I sincerely have no desire to indoctrinate anybody, nor do I want students to believe that they just need to think like I do long enough to pass my course, but I do think there’s something to the idea of critically thinking about the world, and I’m invested in sociology as a way to do this. On one hand, a sort of first principles examination—“what’s the purpose of this field of study, and what do I want to get out of it?” and “what kind of data does it take to convince me?” for instance—is important, and ought to be a part of one’s education. But on the other hand, the class has plenty of substantive material to cover, and that kind of examination can sometimes be distracting.
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- This article is dated 2005-02-03 10:07 and is posted to school-work, sociology
, with tags medical+sociology
Just a quick question: Are you really a college student on the way to full membership in the set of adults when someone is assigned to peek into the room at the beginning of class to make sure you are there?
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- This article is dated 2005-02-02 06:57 and is posted to school-work, with tags babysitting
About, the short version
I’m a sociologist-errant. This site is powered by Textpattern, TextDrive and the sociological imagination. For more about me and this site, see the long version.
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