The economy is blowing up. The election has a certain circus quality to it – more than the usual presidential election. I started a new job (sort of). I’ve been traveling.
So why no blog posts?
Well, my official excuse is I’m working on a redesign of my website, and as part of that effort I’ll be splitting this blog into four separate blogs. So that’s quite a bit of work.
Also, I’ve been exercising for an hour every day after work, I’m reading a couple of books, I just built a website for my brother’s girlfriend to showcase her paintings, and I’m working on a similar one for my dad.
In short, my plate is full, but I hope to get back to blogging soon.
It’s taken me a few days to write this post, partly because I’ve been busy (remarkable in itself, since I’m officially unemployed right now), and partly because I’m still not really sure what I want to say.
David Foster Wallace committed suicide last Friday, and the world lost an acrobatic writer and a dazzling mind. People either love or hate his fractured, self-conscious, self-interrupting, heavily-footnoted style. Some people dismiss it as pretentious or as a kind of academic pandering, but I think his suicide represents a final verdict that shows he was his own biggest critic.
I am a huge admirer of DFW, and I’m not sure there’s ever been another writer so versatile. His work is at times manic, funny, quiet, sad, high-flying, firmly-grounded. Most of it is so multi-dimensional it defies description. He was a virtuoso who came closer to representing the way our brains process life than anyone else I can think of. His magnum opus – Infinite Jest – was 1000+ pages long and packed with footnotes, but as you read it you recognize that your own mind produces this kind of fractured and multi-layered narrative about every second.
Finally, it’s crystal clear in his writing and in the way he would talk about his writing that he wrote out of love. It feels trite to actually write that here, but I think the whole of his writing has a tenderness running through it that is ultimately about the pain of modern life. He recognized how difficult it is to live in the world we’ve made for ourselves, especially for people inclined to examine it.
He was one of those people, and in the end he couldn’t endure what he was able to see.
I’ve been off the grid for a couple weeks, backpacking with my brothers. We embarked a day or two after McCain announced his surprising (and IMHO almost surreal) choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. This, and she, dominated the headlines as we headed into the mountains, and I was hoping the shock and awe would have faded by the time we got back.
The press’s attention span is an interesting thing. It’s still all Palin all the time, and the Republicans seem to be fine with that. They can’t win on the issues, so why wouldn’t they be?
Anyway, I’ve designed a graphic for the new Republican ticket (above). Let me know if you want some stickers.
Edward Tufte famously declared that PowerPoint is evil, and in my life as a consultant, I’ve witnessed quite a bit of love and hate directed at the ol’ ppt. OK, maybe not love per se, but you’d think so from the application’s sheer ubiquity in all manner of pitches, strategies and summaries.
It’s a sign of confidence to present without PowerPoint, and many kudos are laid upon the rare folks who can stand in front of a room and communicate sans slides, charts, bullets or script.
Obama does this. Much is made of how eloquent he is, and it’s worth emphasizing that he often speaks without even so much as a note card. Even when he stands behind a podium, he never looks down.
But now, as we find ourselves in the thick of the presidential race, and silly talk of flag pins and tire gauges is starting to give way to headier discussions of the economy and energy policy, maybe it’s time for a little PowerPoint.
As the candidates argue about the efficacy of offshore drilling – one saying it won’t affect gas prices for a decade or two or perhaps at all, and the other saying it will bring down prices in a few months – it’s nothing but two guys arguing until someone busts out some data.
When Obama talks about the economic and national security impacts of importing so much of our oil from questionable dictators, it’s nothing but words until you actually hear factoids like…
- Enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year.
- We send $2 billion every 24 hours to foreign countries to buy nearly 70 percent of the oil we use every day.
Those, by the way, came from Al Gore’s recent “Generational Challenge to Repower America” speech. I use Al Gore as an example because he won a Academy Award for a PowerPoint presentation. An Academy Award. For a PowerPoint presentation.
Clearly, you can’t fault the medium for the crap that you normally see in PowerPoint.
Remember Ross Perot running for president in 1992? He produced the first-ever infomercials for a presidential campaign. He didn’t use PowerPoint, but he showed us lots of charts and graphs. He was dismissed by many as a cartoon and a crank, but he got nearly 20% of the vote. That’s nearly unheard-of for a third-party candidate.
Bottom line is, the candidates are good at spewing positions and opinions, and they may think that people have no patience for the nitty gritty. But I think they’re wrong. I believe the first candidate who can effectively illustrate his opinions, who can bolster his positions with facts and figures packaged as delicious bite-sized morsels will take a huge leap in the polls.
In a word: compromise.
Now, compromise is often a good thing. I’m all for bi-partisanship. I want a candidate and a president who’s truly willing to look at all sides of an issue and accept that the other party’s point of view might be the right one. I don’t want a candidate who simply panders to the left or the right, and I actually appreciate Obama’s willingness to buck many members of his own party with his recent vote on the FISA bill, as an example.
I’m all for having “no red states and no blue states, but only the United States.”
But then there’s compromise that just seems spineless in a particularly Democrat kind of way, and that’s what I feel like I witnessed this week.
Barack Obama recently took a few steps back from his stance against expanding offshore oil drilling, saying:
If, in order to get that passed, we have to compromise in terms of a careful, well-thought-out drilling strategy that was carefully circumscribed to avoid significant environmental damage – I don’t want to be so rigid that we can’t get something done.
This is a compromise that seems transparently political. Obama’s lead over McCain has all but evaporated over the last week, and polls indicate that the candidates’ opposing views on oil drilling is a key factor. Obama’s move toward the Republican position on oil drilling, therefore, seems like a calculated attempt to neutralize McCain in this one area where he seems to have shown some strength, rather than a sincere effort to reach bi-partisan consensus. It is, “the same old politics” as Obama himself might say.
The problem with this particular compromise is that Obama has professed to agree with virtually all the experts on this issue (including spokesmen from the major oil companies) who say that expanding offshore drilling will have no effect on fuel prices until at least 2017, and little effect even then. This is the truth, and Obama knows it.
So this compromise feels political. It feels like pandering.
It takes quite a bit of courage for a candidate to stand up for the truth when it means telling people what they don’t want to hear, and Obama has made himself out to be the rare Democrat who has that kind of courage. Obama should tell people the truth. He should make a vigorous, passionate case for the truth.
The Republicans have succeeded in clouding the truth on this issue, and Obama’s response should be to clear away the clouds, to shine a bright light on the truth. Instead, he has chosen to accept the clouds.
My belief is that this kind of compromise is what has killed the Democratic Party. When you compromise on everything, then you stand for everything. And when you stand for everything, you stand for nothing.
And when you stand for nothing, then you don’t really give voters an alternative to what the other party offers.
And come election time, if you don’t offer an alternative to what the other party offers, then the people who don’t want to vote for the other party will simply stay home.
I might expand this into a larger article at some point, but for now it’s just something I decided to cobble together for a quick post. Thinking about data visualization was a big part of my job at Scout Labs, and this represents my palette for expressing data in picture form.
|Since color consists of three factors (hue, value and saturation), it’s three for the price of one from a data visualization standpoint. Hue can communicate difference, but value and saturation can communicate other dimensions – like degree of difference. Color is tricky though. You have to be careful to accommodate colorblind people and black and white printing.|
|Size is good for expressing one dimension of difference between things. It suggests something quantitative. If precision matters, then it’s safer to vary size along just one axis (e.g. length). Studies show that people are bad at judging area and angles. They can tell when one line is roughly twice as long as another, but they’re wildly off when they try to guess the exact difference in area between, say, two adjacent circles or two sections of a pie chart.|
|Shape is a good way of creating very basic distinctions between things – or classes of things. It works well, for example, in scatter diagrams and other visualizations that plot data in two- or three-dimensional space.|
|Decoration is good when you want to make an item or a small subset of items stand out from a larger set. Decoration can be more or less subtle, so I like to use it to represent variation as opposed to difference.|
|For position to mean anything, it helps to have stable reference points – like x and y axes (i.e. a grid). Meaning is expressed by the position of objects relative to each other of course, but more importantly it’s expressed in the position of objects relative to the axes.|
|Motion can be a powerful way to add directional nuance around things like trends, or to wrap in concepts like velocity, but the biggest drawback, obviously, is that motion isn’t possible on paper and needs to be translated into something else.|
Obviously these aren’t mutually exclusive. People are capable of grokking a number of concepts from a single visualization, so I usually combine dimensions from the palette. Sometimes I combine things just for efficiency – to get more out of each pixel so to speak. More often, I combine things when I feel like they make sense together.
For example, I might use hue to represent positive or negative sentiment in a product review, saturation or value to represent the intensity of the sentiment, and size to represent the reach of the source.
My friend Rebecca is thinking about purchasing a scooter. Not a leg-powered one (like the “Razor” that was so popular with dot-commers), but a real electric or gas job. She was asking me whether I thought it would be risky for her to park it on the street outside her apartment in the Mission (SF neighborhood), and we got to talking about ways she might prevent it from being stolen…
- A really big lock (duh, but doesn’t prevent someone from simply picking it up and tossing the scooter – lock and all – into the back of a truck)
- Cripple it (kill switch type of thing)
- Fake dog poo on the seat (the scarecrow approach)
- Secret GPS, hidden somewhere on the scooter (homemade LoJack)
- Stun Gun (explained by some shirtless dude)
- A laminated copy of her bank acount, stuck to the handlebars (hoping for the sympathy vote)
- A vial of crack, right on the seat – free for the taking (eliminate the middleman – i.e. take the crack, not the bike)
The Business Technology blog over at WSJ reports on a recent study of more than 100 corporate social networks. Ed Moran, a Deloitte consultant, found that:
Thirty-five percent of the online communities studied have less than 100 members; less than 25% have more than 1,000 members – despite the fact that close to 60% of these businesses have spent over $1 million on their community projects.
Moran’s conclusion is that companies get seduced by the technologies involved without understanding the terrain. These sites fail, he believes, because companies don’t invest enough money or manpower in supporting them, and because the things the companies measure don’t really align with their professed business goals.
The title of the article – “Why Most Online Communities Fail” – is misleading, since Moran is talking specifically about corporate social networks, and the very premise of these sites is flawed if you ask me. I haven’t seen the list of companies he looked at, but I would guess that most of them actually have thriving online “communities” whose activities just happen to be distributed across the Internet. People are twittering. They’re posting about those 100 companies on their blogs and MySpace pages.
I understand the urge that companies have to contain this activity, but it’s a pipe dream. You can build the snazziest playground in the world, and most of your community still won’t show up. If you want to connect with them, you have to do it on their turf. If you want to quantify their effect on your brand perception or your sales numbers, you have to find tools that can do that.
That’s what my most recent venture, Scout Labs, is aiming to provide, and that’s why I believe in their product. Companies are willing to spend millions on the fantasy that they can bring their communities to them because they don’t have very good ways of tuning in to the communities that are already out there.
But that’s changing.
Perusing the online blogopolis today, I saw that Xeni over at boingboing has proposed a new greeting card that would thank the recipient for “not douching out.”
“Douchebag” was a fairly common insult back when I was in high school – in the ’80s, but it seems to have made a comeback. Jon Stewart uses it fairly regularly, and I even used it in a blog post a while back to describe how I feel about Chad from those Alltel commercials.
I don’t remember hearing the word much or at all between, say, 1988 and 2005, so out of curiosity I did a Google Trend search for it:
Apparently I’m right. As you can see, the word is virtually nonexistent in searches before around the fall of 2005, and then it suddenly leaps back into the vernacular. I wonder what happened in 2005. What kind of douchebaggery was it that made people reach back in the collective consciousness and pull ‘douchebag’ out of the mothballs.
I don’t know, but if I were to put on my CSI hat, I’d probably start my investigation in Austin TX, where there seems to be a concentration of doucheness:
UPDATE: In September 2005, during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, George Bush congratulated then FEMA director, Michael Brown with the now infamous line, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.” If that’s not douche-worthy, then I don’t know what is.
As a final thought, I’ll share my own opinion on ‘douchebag’ and its return. I like it. It just seems to be the perfect term to describe a certain collection of human qualities. Just what those qualities are is something we were talking about at work a few months ago, and we didn’t come up with an answer beyond ‘you know doucheness when you see it.’
We did agree that ‘douchebag’ describes a collection of qualities as opposed to a type of behavior. As an example of a behavior-describing word, we thought of ‘asshole.’
So, if you make a reckless move and cut someone off in traffic, you’re definitely an asshole. If you’re driving a Hummer and talking on your cell phone, then there’s a good chance you’re also a douchebag.