Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Diana Wynne Jones and rules and structure

While I was sick earlier this month, I reread (after entirely too long) Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock. It's one of my favorite books; for a while in my early 20's I would have put it atop my list of favorites. As Jones explained later in an essay on the novel, it's at root about the heroic ideal—she has a really great piece of the essay where she summarizes the rise and fall of that ideal—and how it translates into modern ways of thinking. I'll write more fully on it later, and about the truly problematic ending of the book (it's the one thing pretty much everyone ends up compaining about in the book). But what it brought to mind in rereading Tufte, is the difference between structure and rules.

Jones hates rules. No, that's too strong, but a lot of her characters spend their books working their way out of a web of rules, only to discover that those been used by the villains to hide the true state of things from everyone. They've been used to cheat.

On the other hand, discovering the true state of things, which often involves learning about the structure of the story's universe, is often central to the action of her stories. She loves structure, as her nonfiction essays make clear. Fire and Hemlock was built around the structure of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, which she admires for their mix of stasis and change. If anything, her fascination with the shape of stories may be a weakness; she get so caught up with the structure sometimes it's hard for her to just follow the story where it needs to go according to emotional logic. Sometimes. Especially at the end of stories.

In her short story "The Sage of Theare," the two ideas are tied together in my mind by this pronouncement, presented as a graffito:
I love that. To me it puts structure and rules in precisely the right place: necessary but not exclusive.

Jones's stories though, differentiate between the True Structure of the universe (the way things work we can't do anything about), and rule structures set up to imitate that True Structure and replace it in people's minds. These structures are all about the maintenance of power.

I had a long conversation with Joe tonight, after entirely too long. In regards to rules, he talked about how strange it has been for him to be back in an office environment after a long time away. In particular, he has been reminded of a peculiar dynamic of work environments: everyone is working from their own rulebook. Some are there to earn their paycheck and then go do what they really love, and they pay by rules that follow this way of thinking about work; some are there to do Great Work regardless of what the needs of the company are, and they have a different set of rules; some are there because they are workaholics and they go crazy if they aren't there—another set of rules. And so on. And each person quickly learns who is playing with a comparable rulebook, and who is just weird (i.e. everyone else). In an office environment where people are allowed to play by their own rulebook and where their role in the company fits that rulebook, it can work out fine. Where everyone is expected to play by the same rulebook, those who don't end up in a Dilbertian nightmare sort of job.

It got me thinking about our "what is a map" discussions, here and elsewhere. I think the same thing applies: we want our rulebook to be the rulebook. I'm not saying we don't need rulebooks. It can be really useful to discover what your rulebook is; it can help immensely in clarifying your work. What is more useful to the wider community though is to describe (measure?) the structure we are working in—in my case, the structure of cartographic expression—and then work with that structure with our own rulebooks, without using formulated rules to proscribe that structure.

If we can stand it.

I hope that all made sense.

More soon on E Tufte.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Revisiting Tufte, Pt 1: Visual Display of Quantitative Information

[note: I have this to say about pneumonia: Bleh! I'm feeling much better, but let me just say that as weight-loss programs go, I do not recommend this one]

In response to Katie Benjamin's question, I decided to go back and read Edward Tufte. I read him years ago, but it's been years.

I've started with the first of his "big books," The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

A few thoughts:

The book starts out so well. Really good observations and history of statistical graphics. And then the basic concept of graphical integrity, one in a lineage of "graphic parades of horribles," in a line with How to Lie With Statistics and How to Lie With Maps. It's an effective and entertaining technique, and Tufte does a good job with it, in particular excoriating those who make infographics that in their pictoriality distort the data.

In particular, the idea of the ink-to-data ratio is a useful one: if a mark doesn't mean something, leave it out. It's really a Strunk-and-White kind of practical model towards lean and effective graphics.

After that, I fear things go downhill. First, his analysis of why we have bad statistical graphics. He ascribes this to (1) bad training on the part of graphic folk who haven't spent much time with data analysis: they are drawing about things they know little about; (2) the idea that statistics are boring and need "livening up" if readers are going to pay attention; and (3) the idea that readers won't understand charts if they're too plain.

Basically we have charts that lie because the people who make graphs are ignorant, disrespectful and bored. If you make bad graphics, it's a character fault. I think it's a cheap shot.

He then goes down the road towards graphic language reform in the name of "data-ink" maximization, proposing specific new techniques that feel to me a little like the spelling reforms of Melvil (aka Melville) Dewey: based on sound theory, but ignoring the power and centrality of cultural habit. They assume because something makes sense and fits an ideal of simplicity that people will either do that something or be dunderheads.

Maybe people like complexity for its own sake. Sometimes at least. Coming soon, a blog entry: in defense of the graphically baroque.

The following chapter I think illuminates what's really going on: It's called "Multifunctioning Graphic Elements" and it's about graphics that can be read fully from a variety of different view points. The graphics in this chapter are like poems: they are multi-faceted, complex, sometimes ambiguous in the sense that they play different sorts of information off each other in the same expression.

They really are things of beauty.

So here's what I think: sometimes you want a poem, but sometimes you you want a straight answer to the question, "how much does that tomato cost?"

The former, you want to pack in multiple layers of meaning in a way that may miraculously land in your lap or that may take years of gathering and pondering. The latter, you want a clear social mind operating in the moment, which can respond in the same language to a conversational question.

The presumtion that all communications ought to strive for a single ideal oversimplifies the variety of human communication. I think Tufte actually has interesting reads on multiple pulses; I'm just not convinced that in his quest for Overarching Rules he hasn't Overreached.

In any case, more from the Tufte trail soon...