November 3, 2008
Why are the early voting lines so long… and why did NPR’s Carrie Kahn just report about them like they’re a big block party? We’re talking three to five hours long, when more than a half hour should be considered undemocratic.
A long voting line is not an act of nature. It is not inevitable. Nor can it be attributed to surprisingly high voter turnout — after the past eight years, there’s no surprise. Besides, election officials should have methods for handling “surprises” within their jurisdictions. Even with early voting.
“This has the potential to disenfranchise a heck of a lot more people than, dare I say it, hacked electronic voting machines,” said Tova Wang, vice president for research at Common Cause, which has been monitoring potential balloting problems ahead of this week’s vote. (LA Times, 11/2/08)
I want to know how and why long voting lines happen. If we don’t ask, and we don’t know, then we can’t press for change. We’re down to the wire now. If it’s true that the presidential race looks different when pollsters ‘narrow the pool of responses from registered voters to likely voters,’ then there should be no block-party reporting where voting isn’t smooth.
August 18, 2008
I spent last weekend in Western Massachusetts, visiting my parents and enjoying a summer performance in the fresh mountain air at Tanglewood.
Freed from the seemingly endless To Do list of my Cambridge life, I embraced one of those projects that nearly always ends up at the bottom of the pile. I descended into my parents’ basement to winnow a few boxes of personal memorabilia. They were mostly grade school and college notebooks, awards certificates, and personal essays assigned by voyeuristic middle school “English” teachers who know they’re panning for gold during a rush.
Even a media girl will tolerate only so many boxes of dormant paper, because someday her parents will make her store them herself. At least computers arrived partway through this lifelong accumulation of paper, creating the illusion that one is a minimalist (and then making it a reality through malfunction or obsolescence). But, with the paper that remains, it’s so hard to know what to keep and what to throw.*
However, there was no question as to the fate of one yellowed 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper. In 1987, a summer school teacher wrote a brief evaluation of my participation in a class where we made our own magazine:
Rekha was a fast learner in the art of “lay-out” and “paste-up.” She has a good logical mind for organizing material, and likes to add her own creative touch to the format of a magazine. I appreciated the leadership she provided as editor and enjoyed working with her on her own articles.
I was thirteen years old. In the years that followed, I considered careers in interior decorating, environmental law, medicine, architecture, photography, international diplomacy, or something that would fulfill my eighth grade class designation as First to Make a Million. I eventually faced my destiny and went into media… and here I am, 20 years later, laying out digital objects and curating content with logic and creativity. I might have saved myself a lot of searching if I had paid attention to these little indicators. Then again, what I do now didn’t exist back then.
[Because I was reminded that truth, edited for narrative flow, will still be treated as truth (see comments).] There’s another story about how my earliest memories include sitting in the back of my parents’ car, listening somewhat involuntarily to NPR. And how, while a teenager, lots of people told me I had a great voice, and that I should be a journalist, and how I agreed but for many years I was too scared to try. But that’s going to have to wait until I find another artifact to peg it on.
*I would be curious as to other people’s criteria for retaining or letting go of personal artifacts over the years.
I attended Edward Tufte’s “course” on information design a few weeks ago. The hundreds in attendance were clearly hungry for answers to the problems of everyday life. (It reminded me a bit of the time I saw Sri Sri Ravi Shankar when my friend tricked me into it by failing to correct the natural assumption that a Ravi Shankar at a performance hall in Washington, DC, would be bringing his sitar.) Tufte stokes their hunger by titling his events “Presenting Data and Information: A One-Day Course Taught by Edward Tufte” and by styling himself as professor-guru. He holds “office hours” during breaks. He does not invite questions from the audience, nor does he acknowledge those that are occasionally blurted out anyway.
I sat between a guy who designs machines that cut steel, and a woman who works in medical informatics for a hospital. They wanted to learn how to make their presentations better. Instead, they learned that the Napoleon took his soldiers on a death march through Russia and that Boeing engineers were afraid to sound the alarm when astronauts’ lives were on the line.
Ok, I’m being a little snarky. I actually have a lot of respect for what Tufte has done. His beautiful books are full of examples that show the artistry and breadth of information design. But his course is little more than a book tour that participants get to pay to attend. It’s fun, but it’s not a course.
Tufte spent a little too much time on a pet idea of his called sparklines, “data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics.” Actually, they’re pretty cool. My only concerns were that they pack *too* much information into too small a space, and in the wrong information intake context. If I’m in a text-reading rhythm, will I — or can I even — break that rhythm, switch to a graphics-reading mode, and then switch back again? I wasn’t so sure, though I remained open to the possibility.
When I got home that evening, I did a bit of online retail therapy to wind down. As ever, I visited RetailMeNot before closing a purchase. And there I saw sparklines, used perfectly.
I’ve never quite understood why a coupon code with a 30% success rate would work for me, and why one with a 90% success rate wouldn’t. I still don’t understand it, but with sparklines, I get a better picture of that strange phenomenon. Because I can see where in the sequence the successes and failures are, I also have a better sense of which coupon to try first. That appeals to my desire for efficiency in the service of optimum discount achievement.
What I like about this usage of sparklines is that it doesn’t break my rhythm. On RetailMeNot, I’m not in a fluid text-reading mode. I’m scanning the page and evaluating several different color, graphic, numeric, and textual indicators to decide which coupon code to try. In that context, the sparkline graphic fits right in.
Now, enough about consumerism. Can sparklines save the world? (At a discount?)
December 24, 2007
Like anyone interested in food and cooking, I have cookbooks, I have a few issues of cooking magazines… and I have recipes. Recipes clipped and torn from magazines and newspapers, scribbled on scraps of paper, and printed from an email or a Web site.
These recipes comprise a tattered pile perched atop the cookbooks in my kitchen. The pile comprises a tiny but constant space in the room of my memory palace that is furnished with other personal organizational directives — photos, pantry, clothing, computer files. That room is, naturally, painted a light shade of guilt.
A recent blog post by a foodie friend brought this room to the front of my mind:
…I bought a sturdy-looking accordion file and began going through all the mags to clip out my favorite recipes. It was a herculean task that had to be done over a number of sittings, spread out over several months to allow sufficient recovery time after each brave plunge…
Organizing recipes is what people do, right? I bought an accordion file at Staples, and considered the taxonomy I would use.
- Appetizers, Entrees, Desserts?
- Vegetables, Grains, Meats?
- Sweets and Savories?
- Large Meals and Small Meals?
- Quickies and Time-Takers?
I couldn’t commit to an organizing logic. The problem nagged at me, and I began to resent that so much thought was going into a common and ostensibly minor problem. I blamed my difficulty on the years of immersive computer use that had eroded my ability to place items into silos. Online, I search by keyword or browse by tags. On my computer, I keep folders that are loosely structured and highly imperfect because it’s easy enough to copy the same file to several places or (gasp) use the Windows Search when desperate.
But I remained convinced that the physical realm still needs categories, and that the mental exercise of creating them would somehow make me stronger. Until recently, when I had dinner with a few friends and submitted my organizational problem for a collaborative solution.
One (John) has a few tried-and-true recipes that he makes from memory. One is a food blogger, who knows where her recipes are because she turns to them all the time. Both were sympathetic to my organizing drive, but neither seemed compelled to do the same. Their empathetic distance from the issue was rather surprising, as I had not expected the discussion to call the problem itself into question.
Two other friends had no sympathy at all for my recipe problem. One is a core mover in the development of the semantic Web; the other would greatly benefit from its widespread use, judging from his current endeavor. Now, the semantic Web is a complex concept. (Overly) simply put, it’s a way to connect similar types of data across dissimilar digital contexts. One result of this, true believers claim, is that organizing things into categories is a waste of time and shuts information retrievers off from results that might actually be relevant but are in a different category. For example, if a recipe Web site relied on categories alone, an item in the Entree section might make a perfectly nice Appetizer, but the person looking for appetizers would never know.
Fine. I get this, and over the past few years my digital information management methods have shifted significantly from categorizing and browsing to search.
But what about my clippings, my tangible, physical, natty clippings? The semweb’s got nothing for me here.
Their response: ‘You don’t have that many recipes. If you bother to categorize them, you’re going to end up going through the entire accordion file to get ideas or find the recipe you were looking for, anyway. So why bother filing them in the first place?’
At this point, the brief and powerful manner in which a fundamental assumption of mine — recipes must be organized — was dismissed had an interesting effect: utter acceptance on my part. I also felt a little lighter. That’s one less piece of clutter in the room of personal organizational directives.
The conversation then took a telling turn towards other examples of mild obsessive-compulsive disorder in our lives. I did resent that a little bit. But, I could see their point. What if the desire to organize by category is not a cleaner kitchen, but rather a prison with guilt-colored walls?
I mulled over this for a few days after that fateful dinner. I came to a couple of other realizations:
-If we took a little survey of the semantic Web developer community, we’d probably find they don’t organize their recipes, they don’t put their photos in albums, I’d hate to see their closets, and they ripped all their CDs and got rid of them as soon as it was technologically possible. They likely have a general aversion to categorizing and culling, but the digital realm is more conducive than the physical realm to a workaround. (If only this crossover fantasy could be a reality without RFID tags everywhere!)
-My obligatory need to organize my recipes emerged, at least in part, from a fear of forgetting. I am not a chef or a food blogger, just a reasonably good occasional cook. I will never have enough recipes to lose track of the ones I have. And they’re kept in two places – in that pile in my kitchen, and in my head: There is a recipe clippings room in my memory palace that I hadn’t realized existed. What brings me there is sometimes rational (I need an appetizer) — but more often it’s emotional and sensual. When I think of my beloved grandmother, and I think of her matzo ball soup, I think of the page I wrote it on in a little book given to me by friends on my 22nd birthday. When I remember one of the best dinners I’ve ever hosted, I remember the lamb kofta recipe on its glossy magazine stock in that tattered pile. My pumpkin bread, made hundreds of times, still seems like the perfect thing for every occasion.
In any case, if a recipe does disappear from my memory palace, is that really such a tragedy? It might turn up the next time I rifle through the clippings, or it might not. I’ve always thought of food as experience and memory. So I’ll let it behave like those, fading in and out, establishing, or going away to make room for something new. Here, I finally understand, I do not need a closed system that scales.
November 25, 2007
Last week, I watched the “60 Minutes” segment about chain restaurants and the growing pressure by New York health officials to prominently display calorie counts.*
My mind turned an ashamed eye back to a Starbucks in Washington, DC, which fed me a small mocha frappuccino a day for an entire, hot summer. Urban legend has it that a frappuccino has ‘as much fat as a Big Mac.’ I never motivated to research this until now… <researching>… actually, the small one isn’t as bad as that. Phew. Apparently hyperbole goes both ways in the Obesity Wars. But I’ll stick with tea.
Back to “60 Minutes”. Lesley Stahl accuses a calorie count board hanging at a Wendy’s of being “drab and easy to miss.” From what I saw in the video, that seemed a bit unfair. True, the text is small. But there’s lots of stuff to show (which is probably why the Starbucks site is very interactive).
From the show’s online summary:
[A Wendy’s spokesperson] says that because Americans love to customize — adding cheese or extra mayo — providing accurate information is nearly impossible… [He] showed 60 Minutes a Wendy’s menu board that lists the combos.
He then showed Stahl what it would look like [with calorie counts]: a dense, cluttered board, with tiny type. “Obviously … no one can read it. And you would have to see this from eight feet away,” [he] explains.
“Let me see. This is absurd. Oh my gosh,” Stahl remarks.
Seeing the board, I saw an information design problem. A problem for:
As far as I know, Mr. Tufte has never tackled this. How would he — or any information designer — present calorie counts in a way that is accurate, comprehensive, and easy to read at a glance?
Would it change how people order? Would it change how they eat?
In other, more dramatic terms: Could good information design fight obesity? (Has it already, in supermarket labeling?)
*The logic that targets the chains is a bit bizarre, according to “60 Minutes”:
The calorie labeling in New York would not apply to “calorie Meccas,” like Chinese restaurants, delis, and fancy French bistros. The chains were singled out because they already publish nutritional information about their food…
Would I want to be confronted with calorie counts wherever I eat out? No. Would I want to know, when choosing where to eat, that the worst of the offenders had been banned? Sure. For example, while it would be naive to trust that the FDA vets everything, there’s a reason it exists.