Friday, April 29, 2011

A day with Edward Tufte

I first encountered Edward Tufte in my technical editing class at UCBX. Two chapters of his books were used as a starting point to discussing the importance of presenting accurate, complete, and readable information in a way that makes the evidence surface by itself. Good analytical design saved London from the cholera in the nineteenth century. It would have saved the passengers of the Columbia and Challenger space shuttles if only PowerPoint and chart junk hadn't been in the way. Our instructor described Tufte as the guru of visual and statistical design—a man you wouldn't want to miss if he came your way. So when the time came of his yearly visit to California, I immediately enrolled in his one-day course.

I arrived at the hotel's conference room in San Jose well in advance, as instructed, and was handed a beautiful case containing Tufte's four self-published books. The room was immense. There were at least five hundreds of us, quietly seated, discovering these four pieces of art while classical music was floating around us. The books were so beautifully made that, at first, I didn't dare flipping the pages by fear of damaging them. My heart nearly stopped when my neighbor spilled coffee on the table inches away from my copy of Beautiful Evidence. I got up to have two of my books autographed by the master of ceremony. He was greeting everyone with the same few words, which sounded like a rhyme: "What do you do? Where do you work?" And people would tell him a few things about them. All I shyly came up with was: "I studied two chapters of your books," to which he answered: "Well, you have a lot more to read!"

Back in my seat, the course began. We listened to a piano piece by Chopin while little colored segments were displayed on a screen in rhythm, one next to the other, at a height proportional to the pitch of the notes. (There is an example here.) I could see the music even better than I could hear it: its rhythm, its melody, its intertwined patterns, and its overall "shape"... I could anticipate what I would hear next. It was breathtaking. And it introduced all the key ideas of the course: how the abundance of detail (data, not decoration), presented all at once, clarifies the design and gives the audience a multitude of points of view, enabling them to compare data at various levels, and draw conclusions.

We spent the rest of the day reading excerpts of Tufte's books and analyzing their myriad of wonderful graphics, some as old as Galileo's sunspot drawings. Each example reinforced the principles introduced with the piano piece, and added depth to them. Here are a few sentences I wrote down during the course:

  • Graphics should provide two things: information (the reader must understand the story) and reasons to believe the information (the reader will assess the story's credibility).
  • High-resolution designs are genuinely interactive.
  • "Whatever it takes" principle. Show as many data as it takes to let the evidence speak for itself.
  • Comparison is at the heart of the intellectual task of processing information.
  • In a design, try to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. Avoid boxes around titles, dark lines, and clutter (noise) in general.
  • Never sort tables alphabetically. Order by performance.
  • Maximize content.
  • The principles of analytical design are based on the principles of analytical thinking: causality, comparison of multiple variants, credibility, etc.
  • Help comparisons by presenting data adjacent in space rather than stacked in time. (For example, present all on one page rather than on two pages, front and back. Use high-resolution print-outs rather than PowerPoint slide shows.)
  • All presentations should provide a super-graphic.
  • Don't attract attention to the method used to present the data.
  • Use good models to avoid amateur design.
Tufte's love for rare books, art, and science was really contagious. The day went by quickly despite the overwhelming amount of images and information that was presented. I went home with my four precious books, the head full of new perspectives on statistical design, knowing that, indeed, I had far more to read.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Keep it Simple – A Technical Communicator’s Golden Rule

Recently, in my technical writing class, I was given the assignment of finding a bad writing sample to present to the class. For some time the phrase “dangling participle” had been bouncing around in my head. If someone came up to me on the street and asked for a sample of one, did I even remember whether it was good or bad writing? Much less, come up with a sample of one? So this is where I decided to start my Google search. Good old Wikipedia cleared up the good or bad writing question:
A dangling participle is an error in sentence structure whereby a grammatical modifier is associated with a word other than the one intended, or with no particular word at all. For example, a writer may have meant to modify the subject, but word order makes the modifier seem to modify an object instead. Such ambiguities can lead to unintentional humor or difficulty in understanding a sentence.”
Well, clear that a dangling participle would be a sample of bad writing, but I couldn’t really make sense of the definition until I looked through a few samples:
  • Turning the corner, a handsome school building appeared.
  • At the age of eight, my family finally bought a dog.
  • Walking down Main Street, the trees were beautiful.
  • Reaching the station, the sun came out.
Okay, handsome school buildings don’t turn corners, or heads for that matter. A family’s age is not usually a topic of conversation. Beautiful trees don’t walk down the street and the sun doesn’t usually come out when it reaches the station. I remember now what a dangling participle is, but I’m not sold on turning this in for my assignment. So my web searching continued.

Next I happened upon the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest sponsored annually, since 1982, by San Jose State University’s English department. The contest was started by a SJSU professor who discovered the originator of comic-strip-hero Snoopy’s favorite phrase to start a novel, “It was a dark and stormy night; …” The originator was Edward George Bulwer-Lytton who opened his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, with the infamous line:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
Contestants in the Bulwer-Lytton contest are asked to compose and enter the opening sentence of a bad novel. I read through several entries from over the years and found a favorite that I thought to present in class, but questioned using a contest winning piece of bad writing. Then I saw a link to Sticks and Stones, a page where contest followers had submitted published authors who might have won the Bulwer-Lytton.

Since I do have a tendency to ramble in my own writing, and want to put into practice what I’m learning - technical writing is all about communication, clarity, and conciseness – I decided to use one of these actually published samples. The final choice for my “Bad Writing Sample” assignment is a subtle reminder of a couple of things:
  • why I didn’t always complete literary reading assignments in high school,
  • how as a technical communicator, I need to always serve the reader – keep it simple.
I hope you enjoy the following work, and you too will take home a good lesson in how to be a better communicator. Keep in mind that Mr. Melville’s excerpt is one page of a seven page chapter, a one sentence paragraph, with a 469 wordcount.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale

“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title 'Lord Of The White Elephants' above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolisings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things -- the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honour; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Being Blocked Again

In the last month, I have again found myself stuck in the mud of writing. Instead of jotting off numerous responses to job postings, I find myself stuck.

I can’t answer one posting. The words are like sticky peanut butter, just don’t flow like fine wine. I have trolled the rivers of friends and colleagues. I looked endlessly for the reasons why. But the answers I get are almost worst: "It’s really hard work; It takes a lot of time" OR, "I’m contacting or interviewing 5-7 companies a day". All these last comments made me feel inadequate, lacking in confidence and insecure.

The fact I am discovering, is that you just have to focus your time, get away from home and determine where you have the most matches and write up a cover letter that is not too long. I hope to keep the ball rolling and build on my own every day – 3 packets a day.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Where Do You Do Your Best Writing?

I'm sitting in a great little cafe--the Stable Cafe--on Folsom Street in the city, and writing this blog entry.* What’s great is that my writing is flowing now, not like a few days ago when the words seemed stuck somewhere and wouldn’t come out.

When I taught writing, I told students to observe themselves as they wrote so that they could figure out where they did their best writing.

I discovered when I lived in Cambridge that the best place for me to write was in a coffee house. I'd go to Harvard Square to the Casablanca and write poetry. Sometimes, the Casablanca would be fairly quiet and empty, but other times, I'd be surrounded by many people, usually all strangers, telling their stories to each other, some quiet and some loud. The gossip I'd overhear might distract me from my writing, but it would usually give me a boost that helped me write.

The Stable Cafe isn’t quite Casablanca, but it’s got that same energy, that buzz that fuels writing if you like to write in public places.

Where do you do your best writing? As an extravert, I’m at my best when I’m with people. In her book, Gifts Differing, Isabel Briggs Myers wrote that “extraverts think by communicating.” The implications of the are worth considering. If you’re an extravert and you don’t have an opportunity to communicate, you can’t think. And if you can’t think, you can’t write.

For me—as an extravert—writing in a coffee house solves that problem. In one way or another, I feel like I am in communion with those who are nearby, and we communicate silently. Although I may hear everything that my neighbors are saying, I pretend that I do not. And although they—in fact—may not care at all about my act of writing, I feel that I am receiving their silent approbation and applause, and with their inherent approval, I can give myself permission to write even more.

Do you need quiet to write or do you need to be with people? The conventional wisdom is that people do their best writing when they are alone in a quiet room. But now, many people do their writing in cubicles and open spaces at work rather than alone in rooms with doors that close. Or at Starbucks or Peets…. Or with earphones or earplugs firmly implanted so that they can feel alone when they are in fact surrounded by all of their co-workers….

* * * * *

Where do you do your best writing?


*Why is it that when San Francisco natives refer to the city, they always mean San Francisco?