Notes – Edward Tufte’s “Presenting Data and Information”

Edward Tufte is a Yale-connected academic who conducts several private seminars around the country each year promoting his view of visual design for the display of quantitative information and statistics. He has published multiple books through his own publishing mark such as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Beautiful Evidence, Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations. His personal website which contains articles, research papers, examples of his work and principles and other information is at EdwardTufte.com. A friend who is a fan has blogged some notes about the man and his seminar courses.

If I were to summarize Tufte’s philosophy of information design into a single sentence, which is certainly a crude way to approach the nuanced and thoughtful lifework of a person, I’d say this– beautiful design means creating the highest density information display the resolution of your medium will allow. This stands in stark contrast to the reigning paradigm of “less is more” and sacrificing much of the available real estate of an information display for white/empty space, navigational or UI elements and “inference assists” (my term) such as arrows, boxes and non-data lines which are supposed to draw the viewer’s attention to what’s important or where to focus their eyes.

In Tufte’s own words, he summarized the philosophy with the pithy, “The information is the interface; maximize content reasoning time; minimize design decoding time.” [Note: on my hand-written notes written in a darkened room early in the morning at the start of his seminar, I think I mistakenly wrote “maximize design decoding time” but meant to write “minimize”.] Even more pithy, and in Tufte’s own words:

The purpose of information display is to assist thinking about its content.

I attended his seminar in San Diego, CA in February. Below I am posting my notes which may or may not be useful to a person unfamiliar with his work or the content of the seminar. Tufte, who introduces himself as “ET”, likes to circulate amongst his audience before, during and after the session and introduce himself– clearly he enjoys what he does and appreciates the people who have taken an interest in his work which is a good professional example for others to follow.

  • The information is the interface.
  • Idea: maximize content reasoning time; minimize [maximize? see above] design decoding time
    • design decode effort/time is wasteful as the pattern for design is often not repeated in the future
  • Graphics are only useful when there is a lot of data, not a little bit of data
  • Design should encourage scanning, scrolling and choosing
  • Increases in resolution allows for spatial adjacency [note: this is the idea of putting lots of information side-by-side versus having to change mediums, windows, displays, repeatedly to compare and contrast blocks of information]
  • Digital display screen resolution is finally approaching “P.A.P.E.R. technology” (paper) resolution
  • Simple, clear conventional design with rich, complex data is preferable to complicated design devoid of content; many designers invest too much effort in display relative to content quality
  • NYT, WSJ are highly trafficked websites high in information density (many links, many pieces of data and text) which demonstrate this approach is desirable for design of corporate sites
  • Names have reputations, put your name on your work
  • Reasoning on a flat surface means all viewers can go at their own pace; a slideshow makes most people wait; think “documents” not “decks”
  • Listing sources for data provides credibility and reasons to believe
  • Look at sources, start points, end points, rates of change, to examine whether a chart establishes a relationship between evidence and conclusion
  • Annotations help explain all data by providing specific information about one data point captured in the graphic
  • Look at “excellence in the wild” to contrast your own efforts against the pros
    • Use Word, not PowerPoint
    • Be web-based
  • Order data tables by performance, not by alphabet; performance often tells a story
  • ESPN.com demonstrates that even complex data can be appreciated by lesser intellects (!)
  • Dashboards are idiotic and no way to operate a business or institution
  • How to Make A Presentation, some tips:
    • show up early (head off problems, ensure equipment works, room not double-booked, etc.)
    • talk to people
    • give them a document for discussion; don’t give it in advance of the meeting, no homework
    • begin meetings with study hall, people can read faster than you talk
    • the document addresses the principles of individualism and personalization as people can take what information from it they deem important
    • PPT disappears as you go higher up an org chart, the top execs have no time for the “long and winding road” (Steve Ballmer anecdote); submit ideas to discuss as written documents
    • provide intellectual leadership about content, stop discussing production methodology
    • finish early, your audience will thank you
    • Remember “Problem, Relevance, Solution”, three necessary components of any good presentation
  • How does Jeff Bezos run a meeting? Read the Forbes article or watch this Charlie Rose interview:
  • Applied presentation tip– provide notes/documents of medical concerns for a doctor to read during your doctor visit; this is what they’re trained to do and they’ll pay more attention to the information if you give them something to read
  • Check out The Public Library of Science and its templates for ideas on content rich documents
  • You can copy the source code from EdwardTufte.com and use the CSS to apply style ideas to your own blog or website
  • Real reading entails looting and hacking the valuable materials useful for later efforts, liberating them from the text; always read with an awareness for context (what came before this, what comes after, why did the author write it?); this echoes the idea of “making the work your own” of Mortimer Adler
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 78-79, using diagram trees appropriately (annotated linking lines)
    • links need to convey causality and action
    • replace generic lines with words and numbers– annotate!
  • Turn fundamental principles of analytical thinking into design decisions
  • The purpose of information display is to assist thinking about its content
  • Don’t pre-specify a data display method, use whatever method the job requires
  • Look at Google Maps and ask IT why you can’t achieve similar design capabilities; their maps are rich, colorful, multi-dimensional, varied fonts and orientation of information, etc.
  • Refer to “Visual Explanations”, pg. 90-91
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pgs. 82-83, 114-115; exploring words, numbers and images together
  • Today’s computer interfaces separate and segregate information based on the method of production
  • Statistical graphics can be anywhere a number or letter can be
  • Statistical graphics can have the same resolution as topography
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 46-47, “sparklines” method for creating text-sized data graphics, embedded within text (inspired by Galileo’s revelation of Saturn)
  • “Nature” magazine has some of the best data-driven graphical displays, good place to look for examples of the possible
  • Why aren’t all data displays excellent? Tufte suggests there is a profit-driven bias and the dominance of Microsoft combined with the lack of scientific rigor of many data designers results in a failure of the “public spirit” principle; color me skeptical about profit and “public spirit” being at odds!
  • Excel, Google Analytics can both produce sparklines
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 58, for the famed Swiss mountain maps, or see this video (YouTube):
  • The human eye-brain optic system operates at 20mb/s in 16-bit color, digital displays don’t come close to this much data and resolution
  • Content and credibility are the keys to presenting and spectatorship
    • have the sources been credible in the past?
    • demonstrate your understanding of detail and mastery of verbs, not nouns (not who is who, but who does what to whom?)
    • threats to credibility: lying, cherry-picking (evidence vs. evidence selection), over-polished, hidden or absent sources (“proprietary”, “legal liability”, “violate federal law”, etc.)
  • Know your content, not your audience; maintain respect for your audience
    • “know your audience” leads to pandering
    • use presentations as a teaching moment to inform people of your content
  • Scan lots of material and drill down where you see discrepancies for superior economization on large volumes of data to achieve relevance
  • Investigate how data was measured; go out, walk around, see the process producing the data
    • people can not keep their own score; the metric is gamed as soon as it becomes important
    • eg, Google words are gamed by SEO, so use Google Images to search
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 32-33 for “small multiples” concept; use the need to learn a repetitious format to get people to focus on the content
  • Universality and “forever ideas”; Galileo was the supreme data designer; why should the “best thing ever” have occurred recently versus long ago?
  • Personal curiosity– why are US internet pipelines significantly slower than other developed nations?
  • Spatial adjacency versus temporal stacking (hi-res vs. low-res)
  • Different modes of display are not competitors, they are co-operators in communicating information; no one display is optimal

Review – How To Read A Book

How To Read A Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

by Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren, published 1972

“Literate ignoramuses who have read too widely and not well”

HTRAB seeks to be a remedy for those described above who have read many books but understood little of any of them. As the authors define it, good reading is active reading, that is, it involves note-taking and and highlighting (write in your books to make them truly yours) and question-asking, with the ultimate question being, “What has the author tried to communicate to me and, assuming I’ve understood him, what do I think of what he has said?” A book is an absent teacher– it is ultimately your responsibility to answer on your own and for yourself the questions you might pose to it.

The 4 levels of reading

The authors set out four levels of reading, which are hierarchical in terms of complexity and skill required, and cumulative, in the sense that each level includes the skills and complexity of those below it while adding unique qualities of its own. The levels are:

  1. Elementary
  2. Inspectional
  3. Analytical
  4. Syntopical

Elementary reading is exactly what it sounds like, the most basic level of reading that all people learning to read initially experience. At this level of reading, one begins to comprehend the letters and words they form as being connected to or representative of concepts, actions, etc. Unfortunately, at this level of reading, comprehension doesn’t go much beyond this and even more tragically, few readers ever seem to graduate beyond this level, even during and after time spent in college. For elementary readers, books are full of words one must step and stumble over, but little meaning is ever found in them.

Inspectional reading is the beginning of true “reading for understanding”, which is the kind of reading HTRAB is primarily focused on. Inspectional reading is both a level of sophistication and a specific tool that can be used to heighten overall understanding and reading skill for one who “reads well.” It is a skill in the sense that an inspectional reader is able to draw out of a book its essential meaning and something about the way in which the author goes about it (as opposed to an elementary reader, who never quite gets that far, missing the meaning forest for the crowd of symbolic trees). It is a specific tool in that inspectional reading entails a deliberate process by which a reader examines the preface and introductory material of the book (or the first few pages) and the conclusion or epilogue (or last few pages) in detail, surveys the table of contents (if available) and index to get a feel for the overall structure, order and topics covered in the book and then jumps around at random through the middle of the book reading passages and pages of interest that appear to be central to the author’s theme and argument. In this way, an inspectional reader quickly learns what the book is about, how the author goes about elaborating upon it and, perhaps most importantly, whether or not it’s a message and artifice worthy of the readers attention and time.

Without this process, or at a minimum, familiarizing oneself with the table of contents, a reader who starts at the first page and tries to plow through is only making his reading more challenging because he is attempting to learn what he is attempting to understand (the topic and structure), at the same time that he is trying to understand it.

The three primary questions answered by an inspectional (summary) reading are:

  1. What kind of book is it?
  2. What is it about as a whole?
  3. What is the structural order of the work whereby the author develops his conception or understanding of that general subject matter?

Tools to prepare you for reading well

The authors suggest four essential questions to be asked by an active reader:

  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or in part?
  4. What of it?

These are questions the reader should have always in the back of his mind as he reads, and which he should be able to answer confidently by the time he finishes.

The authors also recommend several techniques for “making a book your own”:

  • Underline major points and forceful statements
  • Make vertical lines in the margins for passages worthy of quoting at length
  • Stars, asterisks or other markings in the margins where the ten or twelve most critical points are made throughout the book
  • Numbers in the margin to catalog the points of an argument being made sequentially
  • Numbers of other pages in the margin indicating where in the text an idea is revisited or referenced
  • Circling of key words or phrases, similar to underlining
  • Writing in the margin or top or bottom of the page or at the end of a chapter as endnotes, to record questions (and answers), a simplified thesis of what you have read or to catalog a sequential argument in concentrated form

Several other techniques and methods are discussed in HTRAB which are critical to reading well. One is to study the title of the book and learn what you can from it. Authors usually take care in naming their books and the titles give significant clues about what the book is and is not about. Another is to practice stating the unity of the book– in a sentence or a paragraph at most, explain what kind of book it is, what it is about and list the devices the author employs to explore that theme. A final tool is to keep in mind the author’s intentions at all times– every book is written ostensibly to solve a problem, which the book is supposed to be a solution for, which begs the questions, “What is the problem the author wanted to solve by writing his book?” and “What solution does he offer to the problem in writing his book?”

The process of analytical reading

The third level of reading, and the most critical for all who wish to learn to read well, is the analytical level. At the analytical level, the primary intention of the reader is to be thorough, complete and to read for understanding. Some of the tools previously discussed are, in fact, part of the analytical reading toolkit. In total, the process or “rules” for analytical reading are:

  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter
  2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve
  5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words
  6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences
  7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences
  8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed
  9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and interpretation of the book (do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say, “I understand.”)
  10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
  11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make
  12. For criticism, special criteria apply such as: show wherein the author is misinformed, uninformed, illogical or incomplete

I made a note of some other helpful tips for reading well analytically:

  • the important words (in the sense of being critical to the author’s argument) are the one’s that give you the most trouble
  • one clue to an important word is that the author quarrels with other writers about it
  • if you never ask yourself any questions about a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you insights you did not already possess
  • it is best to do all you can without outside help because if you act on this principle consistently you will find you need less and less of it (and take more and more from your reading)

Bringing it all together: syntopical reading

Syntopical reading is the reading of multiple books, with similar topics, in order to synthesize a “conversation” amongst and between the authors. The beauty of this method of reading is it allows one to pit perspectives and arguments from differing backgrounds and even differing time periods into one intellectual commons. It also allows the reader to get a “full measure” of the literary world’s treatment of a given subject. It can be performed by either multi-inspectional reading of various titles, or multi-analytical reading of those same titles.

The steps of a successful syntopical reading are:

  1. Creative a tentative bibliography of your subject
  2. Inspect all of the books in the bibliography to ensure they’re germane and to get a clearer perspective of the subject itself
  3. Inspect the books amassed to find the most relevant passages to the subject matter
  4. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology that all authors can be assumed to agree with, even if they didn’t employ such terminology themselves
  5. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted to have provided answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not
  6. Define the issues, major and minor, by lining up the authors’ respective viewpoints on one side or another
  7. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues so as to throw maximum light on the subject

An afterword

Despite my efforts at being analytical, this review was something of an inspectional survey itself. One thing I took away from my reading is that I do a lot of the things mentioned in the analytical reading process, although I actually neglect a lot of the inspectional reading elements and now realize their value. The reading also confirmed some of my biases by throwing into stark relief the inadequacies of many other people’s reading efforts I am aware of, either from direct personal experience or via interaction with their “interpretations” of ideas gleaned from things they have read. It is somewhat dismaying to realize how few intellectual opponents would qualify as “well read” analytical book users, and how inadequate their attempts at criticism are in light of this. One would be more satisfied to think one’s opponents were both more competent, and more honest, than that.

At the end of HTRAB, the authors provide a number of special tips for the reading of specific kinds of works (poems and plays, history, social science, hard science and math, etc.), as well as a bibliography of “great books” (similar to that found here) and a short essay on what reading well can do for an individual. Aside from the hopefully true suggestion that the mind-exercise provided by reading well can actually help one sustain the vitality and quality of their life even into old age, the discussion of the growing relationship one can develop with truly “great” books is comforting, as well. I think for me personally this passage resonated because of my own experiences reading what I refer to as “acts of philosophy” even when their subject matter is not philosophy per se (endlessly re-readable books like [amazon text=Security Analysis&asin=007141228X] and [amazon text=Human Action&asin=1610161459] which seem to give up new secrets and ideas with each new pass through).

Despite my epistemological misgivings about HTRAB (for example, could HTRAB, in and of itself, assist a person currently capable of nothing more than elementary reading to rise above themselves?), I do believe it itself is a title worth revisiting in the future. My first foray amongst its pages was admittedly quick and inspectional, and there were many passages I will admit I skipped just so I could get to the end and get this up on my blog. It may or may not be a “great” book (I believe I will suspend judgment on that for now), it is undoubtedly a “good” book with much to recommend it and I would encourage anyone who is interested, as well as my future self, to pick it up and give it a read.

Incoming Library Additions, And Why I Bought Them

I recently purchased 13 books for my library. However, I already regret doing so because I recently finished Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and it helped me to realize I already had a lot of unread books on my shelf that I will realistically never get to read because I’ve lost interest in their subject matter since I purchased them. To add 13 more books to a pile of unread books is wasteful of money and subtly increases my stress as I subconsciously keep track of “my giant stack of unread books.” Instead of reading being a pleasure that I can do when I feel like it, with a book I am currently interested in, I have created the conditions of a never-ending treadmill of progress project. Going forward, I am going to work through as many of these books as I can maintain interest in until one of two things happen: a.) complete the entire stack, at which point I can purchase a new title I am interested in reading, at the time I am interested in reading it or b.) sell/donate/discard all books I have not managed to read before I am overtaken by the impulse to purchase something else, which would serve as a good indicator that I’ve reached the limit of my interest from this current stack.

I have noticed that despite having access to an Amazon Prime account, I almost NEVER use the Prime, 2-day shipping feature. I am always happy to wait 3, 5 or sometimes even more days for books to arrive because I am usually in the middle of several books when I order another, and I have another reserve of several titles unread as well so I never worry about lost reading time. That should’ve been a good indication to me that there was something seriously wasteful in my habit!

That is my plan going forward. In the meantime, I thought it’d be good to record the titles I purchased along with the reason I purchased them. I want to formulate my interest as a question or questions I hope the book will help me answer. After all, this is why we read books– to answer questions we have about the book’s subject matter. I would like to develop the habit going forward of being more aware of my own questions and perceived purpose in reading books, especially to compare against on the occasion that a book positively surprises me and gets me thinking about a question I didn’t have before I arrived at it.

Here are my new books due to arrive soon:

  1. The School Revolution, by Ron Paul; we plan to homeschool our children, but could there ever be a (private) group schooling solution which would meet our family and social needs? I am interested in building alternative educational institutions that can “compete” the state and quasi-state institutions out of existence, is there merit to this idea and has Ron Paul thought through potential models for this that I could consider in my own efforts?
  2. How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell; I read and enjoyed Studwell’s Asian Godfathers and I want to know more about the managed economy models of southeast Asia, what is the true extent of “free market” influence in these major economies and how does it factor in to their growth stories since the 1960s?
  3. Elevating Child Care, by Janet Lansbury; I am interested in “Respect For Infant Education” as I have seen how transformative it is for parent-child relationships and child development after observing friends who use it in their families, what are the principles of RIE and what solutions and strategies does it offer for common parenting situations with infants?
  4. Before The Dawn by Nicholas Wade; what role did genetics and evolution play in early human history and what kind of evolution or genetic change is occurring in modern times and populations? What is the significance of race, genetically?
  5. The 10,000 Year Explosion, by Cochran and Harpending; how have changes in human technological know-how and social organization influenced human genetics at an individual or population level? What feedback loops exist such that genetic changes might result in further changes in technology and social organization?
  6. The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley; I am often mistaken for a pessimist and surely there is a lot to worry about for anyone who is rational and pays attention, but what is there to be optimistic about and why? What is the philosophical relationship between economic development and evolution?
  7. The Secret of Childhood, by Maria Montessori; what is childhood “really about”? What kinds of things are children capable of that we take for granted? How could I parent my future child with greater empathy for their capabilities and individual purpose?
  8. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, by Gordon Wood; was the American Revolution truly a “revolution”, politically and intellectually? What were the principles of government the “Founders” were truly after and why did they think this was an improvement over historical despotisms and English parliamentarism? If republicanism represents a true break with the political past, why isn’t it more common in history?
  9. Hive Mind, by Garrett Jones; is it more important to be part of a high IQ community, or to have a high IQ yourself? Can culture impact IQ (and raise it)? Could one consciously build a community or culture of high IQ people? What kind of outcomes or behaviors might be predictable in such a circumstance? Are IQs increasing or decreasing in the modern era and what is the consequence? Should I try to emigrate to a high IQ place and if so, where is that?
  10. The WikiLeaks Files, by WikiLeaks/Julian Assange; what are some of the high-level takeaways from the major WikiLeaks cable collections to date? How does one effectively search and scrutinize these cables for ones own research purposes? What does the information contained within these cables imply for the actual practice of global governance and foreign policy?
  11. Anarchy, State and Utopia, by Robert Nozick; is there a logically-consistent philosophical case for a minimalist government? Why is it intellectually superior to a private property society?
  12. Invisible Wealth, by Kling and Schulz; why do political borders and different legal systems seem to have such disparate impacts on economic development? Which follows which, the culture/political system or the economy? How sound is the idea of “competition amongst governments” and why don’t we see more countries’ policies moving toward a “developed” mean?
  13. The Logic of Collective Action, by Mancur Olson; what does the logic of collective action say about corporate governance structures in private companies? What warnings or limitations does it reveal for the conduct of public governance?