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book reviews

Book review: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

This was a racy cover for 1983
One of my current projects is reading the complete works of Edward Tufte, one of the giants in information design. For better or worse I’ve decided to read the books in order of original publication date, and although The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edition was originally published in 1983 most of its principles are still easily applicable today.

One great thing about the book is that it immediately conveys Tufte’s strong sense of history, providing a solid foundation in understanding the evolution of infographics through the past couple centuries. Tufte’s writing is crisp and direct, supported by page layouts that are simple and approachable. Most of his historical examples are interesting (including Charles Joseph Munard’s famous infographic of Napoleon’s (death) March), and he gets some good ribbing in when he presents his statistical studies on the complexity of the infographics found in modern (for the 80’s) print publications. Surprisingly the New York Times gets a lashing, though as anyone who peruses the Times website these days knows they’ve now got a ridiculously crackerjack infographics team that could very well represent the publication’s future.

Here are the two key principles I took away from this first volume:

  • Data should never lie. This means being absolutely accurate in representing visual proportions and relationships in your graphics, as well as eliminating any possible confusion in presentation: clearly labeling your data, avoiding harsh coloring/shading patterns, etc.
  • Give your audience more credit. What this really boils down to is that Tufte places a premium on conveying information efficiently, condemning modern graphics for being overly simplistic and bloated “chartjunk.” He goes to great lengths to measure each graphic’s efficiency with two key ratios: the first is the ratio of ink used for data points vs. ink that doesn’t represent actual data, and the second is a measure of how many data points are presented per square inch or square centimeter. His metrics and analysis are endearingly thorough.

These principles are clearly just good user interaction design, though it’s surprising how often they still get violated (I’m looking at you, USA Today). Overall, the book is a brisk and fun read. It’s even inspired me to create some of my own personal infographics, though I suspect most of my ideas won’t pack in quite the data density that Tufte would approve of.

Regardless, I’m really looking forward to cracking open the later books in his oeuvre to see how his design sense (and page layouts) evolve throughout the next few decades. Up next: 1990’s Envisioning Information.

Book review: Bringing Down the House

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We’ll talk more about metrics during the Q1 report I post next week, but one of my key metrics for the year is the number of books I read. Somewhat related to this, I recently noticed that it’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve tried to read an entire book on a plane, so on a recent trip to Tucson I decided to finally try it again. I’ve had Bringing Down the House sitting on my shelf at work for the past year and decided on a last minute impulse to chuck it in my bag before heading to the airport. Here are some general impressions of the book:

  1. It’s written at about an eighth grade reading level. Author Ben Mezrich is apparently a Harvard grad, but there are passages of this book that struck me as surprisingly bush league: an awkward metaphor here, an overly earnest description or unimportant detail there. I found myself consistently having to stop and wonder, “Who edited this? Ronald McDonald?”
  2. This book is supposedly a true story — one is led to believe that not even the names were changed, though my guess is that they had to have been — and yet given how fashionable it is to elaborate on the truth these days (I’m looking at you, James Frey) I couldn’t help realizing what a falsehood most of these memoir-ish books have to be. In the case of Bringing Down the House, there are scenes, dialogue and even plot points that are just a little too convenient. The book unfolds suspiciously like the perfect blueprint for a movie, which — congrats! — it looks like they’ve ended up making.
  3. It’s so fashionable to time travel in your narrative these days, but I found the book’s device of jumping between the main character’s rise to fame and the present-day interviews (with the author actually inserting himself into the story) overly clunky.
  4. The motivations of the characters aren’t particularly well-drawn; I wasn’t entirely certain why several of the characters would want to continue playing blackjack in spite of their difficulties once they’d been profiled.
  5. Even with a book written at the eighth-grade level, I read ridiculously slowly. I estimate this book took me about four and a half hours total, which is probably at least two hours longer than it should have.

Despite all these gripes, it’s a compulsive read — by the end of it I actually wished I’d gone to MIT (or lived in Vegas) myself. Also, despite freely giving away some blackjack secrets I’d wager this book probably ended up doing Vegas a net positive, encouraging people to throw even more money down at the blackjack tables. And I’m actually really curious to see 21 now, the movie adaptation starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth. Because nothing says MIT to me like Kate Bosworth.

Book Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go BNever Let Me Go A

We do book reviews too now! Sweet!!! So there were two main thoughts that occurred to me while I was reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go:

  1. It really is unfair how nearly every review of this book had to give away the secret to the story (they’re clones!) – this unspeakably lame review from The Village Voice pretty much gives up the whole plot in its opening line. I understand that you can still enjoy the book once you’ve been tipped off and the fools in marketing needed a hook, but I still lament the fact that because I’d accidentally read a review when the book first came out I wasn’t able to have the discovery process all to myself.
  2. I wish I’d read The Remains of the Day first. I’m betting the narrators of both of these novels are pretty similar, and though Remains won the Booker prize I worry that if I go and read it now my experience with Never Let Me Go will ruin some of its freshness.

Overall, I admire Ishiguro for tackling such a sci-fi topic yet grounding it in a small, meticulous world. The voice of his female narrator (Kathy) is impressively authentic, though not being female I suppose I’m not fully qualified to judge. Ironically, that voice is why I both admired and felt distanced from the book – Kathy’s a well-drawn character, or at least her thoughts are; but those thoughts often seem cloying and small-minded, to the point where it’s hard to sympathize. Ruth (Kathy’s best friend and the other main female character in the book) is also drawn remarkably well, but demonstrates such selfish and manipulative qualities that again it’s hard to enjoy spending time with her.

What I enjoyed most was the simple yet quietly unnerving atmosphere the novel is set in. We realize we’re in a slightly parallel universe, with a few select sci-fi elements thrown in, but Ishiguro really does very little in the way of explaining how it all came to be – he uses that mystery and unsettling quality to craft a world where anything seems possible, yet the focus is always on his characters and how they’re immediately feeling.

Lastly, I thought I should just note that the paperback copy I read had the first cover shown above. When I’d finished the book and started reading reviews, though, I discovered that the original hardcover looked like the second picture, which I prefer a lot more – the doll-face on the paperback is certainly creepy, but I think the original does a better job of alluding to that entire creepy, isolated atmosphere.