Infographic horror

July 27th, 2012  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I don’t mean to pick on the Des Moines Register (certainly, they are not alone in offending this way), but this is one of the worst infographics I’ve ever encountered:

Terrible, content-free infographic

My inescapable first impression is of the amateurish presentation. Although I applaud continuing Myriad creep, the “centered sentence fragments” look is only appropriate if one seeks to evoke the menu for that restaurant that opened up a couple of months ago and then went out of business before you had a chance to check it out. (Indeed, one almost expects a fourth figure on this illustration: “$8 sashimi.”) Furthermore, I note that the TextEdit app that ships with Mac OS X does a better job of automatically kerning the word “BULL’S-EYE” than the Register’s illustrator did.

We’re above harping solely on presentation, though. Unfortunately, this image utterly fails on the content level. It asks a question and then presents three figures. The final figure is essentially irrelevant to the question (although, to be fair, it is unlikely that either candidate would blitz Iowa with ad buys were he running unopposed), and the first figure serves only to supply a sense of scale for the second. So we’re left with one figure that actually addresses the question. However, the explanation for the second figure actively argues against the assumption behind the question!

If we want to argue in simple, front-page chart form why Iowa is worth aggressive attention from presidential candidates, a much better place to start would be the data in this chart, which I found on 270towin.com after searching for Iowa’s historical presidential general election results:

Iowa history

The above illustration is not particularly information-dense, but it gives us two numbers that are actually useful: Iowa’s results are evenly split among the last ten elections between the Democratic and Republican candidate (so, unlike many states, it is not unrealistic for either candidate to win in any given year), and it has gone with the winner of the electoral vote count seven out of the last ten times (so it is a reasonable proxy for the national contest). Of course, we can’t draw a causal link from winning a bellwether state like Iowa to winning the electoral college, but perhaps campaigns believe that they can evaluate tactics in Iowa for use in similar swing states. (Or, less charitably, perhaps campaigns subscribe to the same cargo-cult notions of causality as elected politicians.)

  • Kevin Drum at Mother Jones doesn’t like California’s high-speed rail plan, and he is extremely skeptical of absurd ridership projections: “We are rapidly exiting the realm of rose-colored glasses and entering the realm of pure fantasy here.”

    But keep your chins up, flyover friends: the fact that a high-speed rail line between densely-populated major world cities like SF and LA is a bad idea that will never avoid hemorrhaging money surely isn’t any reason to throw out the dream of a Madison-Milwaukee rail corridor.

  • Often, the places we remember fondly don’t exist in any meaningful sense after we leave. This probably holds most true with institutions like colleges, but even a city or region can change so dramatically in a short time as to be nearly unrecognizable to expats. That’s why I was relieved to see that bloated grocery unions are still ruining retail for everyone in the DC suburbs, just as they were when I went to junior high and high school in the area. In one small way, it’s like I never left.
  • It makes sense that the White House would invite Michael Bloomberg to a meeting on immigration policy while snubbing border-state governors; after all, Ellis Island is really where most immigrants enter the US. (I’m not sure why Rick Perry wasn’t invited to discuss the Port of Galveston, and it’s really unclear to me what the AFL-CIO or Al Sharpton has to do with immigration, but I guess that’s why I make software and not public policy.)


The scarlet NaCl

April 21st, 2010  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

I suspect that most federal appointees and policymakers would claim to have a dim view of “legislating morality,” if asked point-blank about the matter. But this is clearly not the case: some spheres of morality are more than ripe for regulation, legislation, and public shamings for those who offend the sensibilities of our betters.

Consider salt, which has had a rough few months: first, it was the target of a bill in the New York State Assembly intending to outlaw its use by restaurants. Now the FDA has decided that we aren’t capable of reading nutrition-information labels and that they must change the public’s taste for salty foods by ratcheting down permissible salt levels in commercially-prepared food over time:

“This is a 10-year program,” one source said. “This is not rolling off a log. We’re talking about a comprehensive phase-down of a widely used ingredient. We’re talking about embedded tastes in a whole generation of people.”

(The linked article is also notable for mentioning that the “director for technical and regulatory affairs at the Salt Institute” is a man named Morton Satin, which is one of the best vocational aptonyms of all time. When it rains, it pours, I guess.)

The difference between this sort of decision — to change the tastes of a generation by bringing several industries under the gradually-tightening yoke of regulation — and most government actions conventionally considered to be “legislating morality” is one of essence, not of degree. In the latter case, by outlawing (for example) dogfighting or prostitution, government actions merely codify overwhelming public sentiment. In the case of salt (or related issues, like CAFE standards for cars or what sorts of light bulbs one should use), policymakers perceive their actions as necessary to override overwhelming public sentiment.

The Kennedy narrative

August 26th, 2009  |  Tags:  |  4 Comments

Nick Gillespie’s essay on Ted Kennedy is worth reading. Gillespie notes the utter tedium of mass-media reactions to the deaths of major public figures1; points out that, contra his hyperpartisan reputation, Sen. Kennedy was more than willing to reach across the aisle to Republicans who were willing to expand the scope of government; and argues that Kennedy represents “a bridge back to the past rather than a guide to the future,” a legislator whose solutions to problems invariably involved increasing the authority, reach, and responsibility of the government, and whose policy desiderata always depended on having Extremely Smart People consistently making the Right Decisions to bind the wills and actions of the rabble, in true “pyramid power” fashion.

Gillespie, like almost every other commentator today, fails to mention a more obvious way in which Kennedy represents “a bridge back to the past,” albeit one without a guardrail. Kennedy managed to benefit from norms — seemingly anachronistic even forty years ago — that rendered appalling negligence and homicide legally excusable if the perpetrator was sufficiently wealthy and connected. This omission is understandable, since Kennedy’s supporters have long since absolved him and his detractors are surely incapable of hearing his name without recalling Mary Jo Kopechne whether the slain woman is explicitly mentioned or not. But Gillespie does mention another vastly underreported point: Kennedy was a key participant in the deregulation of the interstate trucking and airline industries, which have each had overwhelmingly positive consequences. Gillespie’s summary of these presents a kind and generous eulogy for the late senator:

Because they do not fit the Ted Kennedy narrative preferred by his admirers and detractors alike, these accomplishments rarely get mentioned in stories about the late senator. But they are exactly the sort of legislation that we should be celebrating in his honor, and using as a model in today’s debates about health care, education, and virtually every aspect of government action.

1 This really can’t be overemphasized, especially since the “social web” has made nearly everyone into a low-budget cable news pundit. (Fear not: I recognize the rich irony of throwing such stones from a weblog post.)

It’s funny because it’s true

August 24th, 2009  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Here’s an excellent and evocative one-liner from Peter Suderman’s recent Reason post about netroots disillusionment with the current administration, for whom charisma, control of all three branches of government, and regular bons mots are apparently insufficient leverage to establish an agenda that satisfies the truest of the true believers:

Unless you’re a character in an Aaron Sorkin show, that’s just not how national politics work.

The whole post is, I think, pretty well done and worth reading, but the point that many vocal citizens are apparently living in the onanistic and reductive political fantasy world of The American President &c. is one that probably bears repeating as often as possible.

Immutability and truth

July 17th, 2009  |  Tags: ,  |  4 Comments

Judicial confirmation hearings are generally tedious affairs full of legislative bombast and free of substance. This is doubly the case for those of Supreme Court nominees, in which the most dimwitted senators recognize a wider-than-usual platform for public bloviation and steal the stage as often as possible. The nominees themselves, in light of the greater public attention paid to their hearings, are typically overcoached to the point of near-terminal blandness. Still worse, potential SCOTUS justices cannot comment on almost any controversial topic, since so doing might require a justice to recuse himself or herself if a similar case made its way to the high court. Given these factors, even the most attentive and informed citizen could be forgiven for tuning out such a content-free display.

However, even for bit players in a content-free C-SPAN telenovela, as is the lot of the nominee forced to endure interminable senatorial speechifying, there is a difference between declining to answer questions (whether at all or precisely) and engaging in active mendacity. I am afraid that Judge Sotomayor’s assertion that the meaning of the Constitution is “immutable” except through the amendment process falls in the latter category. Does anyone — including Sotomayor — actually believe that she holds a philosophical position regarded as hopelessly retrograde by vast swaths of legal academia and by the president who appointed her?

Unless the judge is advocating a concept of immutability that is in line with the Tridentine concept of authoritative tradition1 — namely, that the truths have all been there from the beginning, but some haven’t been expressed or clarified yet, and some to-be-expressed truths might just abrogate earlier truths — this strikes me as an absurd position to take given her record and prior public statements, and especially so when expressed in such stark terms. Does Judge Sotomayor believe that Miranda v. Arizona was wrongly decided, since the fifth and sixth amendments had never before been construed to require notifying arrestees of their rights? Or does she believe that everyone simply got it wrong before 1966, and that no one was clever enough to notice the immutable meaning of the amendments until a special revelation to Earl Warren cleared everything up?

I think Georgetown law professor Mike Seidman (quoted earlier in the linked piece), who essentially said that Sotomayor was either perjuring herself or irredeemably stupid, might go too far in his assessment. But I wonder why so many commentators have worked so hard to justify or ignore such obvious temerity. (Imagine the reaction if Justice Thomas had given a lengthy speech in favor of judicial empathy, the penumbras around the Constitution, and the emerging standards implied by foreign court rulings in his confirmation hearings!) This display is only stranger given the sympathetic audience she had in a Senate chamber overwhelmingly inclined to respect the president’s prerogative.

1 Perhaps I should say “in line with a mildly polemical confessional Lutheran reading of the Tridentine concept of authoritative tradition,” but I should also note that the Tridentine concept of authoritative tradition proved untenable in the long run. See Heiko Oberman’s article “Quo Vadis, Petre? Tradition from Irenaeus to Humani Generis,” which was published both in the Scottish Journal of Theology, 16/3 (1963) and in Dawn of the Reformation (amazon link).

On Collins

July 10th, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

I’m delighted by the Obama administration’s pick of Francis Collins to head the NIH. Collins is a fine scientist whose academic credentials are beyond dispute and a likeable human being. Furthermore, as the head of the National Human Genome Research Institute in the mid-90s, he presided over a rare public success of the federal government — and over one of the most exciting achievements of science and engineering in my lifetime.

Nominating Collins goes against the Beltway riptide that all too often sucks eminently unqualified people out of mediocre lives or unrelated pursuits and strands them in specialized positions of great authority (e.g., this distractable infant, this popular dessert item, and this Scaramouche). It is a pleasant surprise to see someone nominated because they have a real opportunity to provide competent leadership, not because someone called in a favor, because a crony needed a reward, or because the boss wanted to look smarter when standing near the appointee. Good luck, Dr. Collins.

Voting for change

November 5th, 2008  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Yesterday, I saw an enthusiastic young woman on State Street who was handing out stickers to passers-by. When I got within earshot, she asked me if I had “voted for change.” I had voted — and indeed, I had voted in favor of several specific changes — but more-or-less politely declined the sticker, since I am only willing to provide free advertising for burger joints, not particular candidates.

I know what she meant, but honestly, it strikes me as an abuse of language to think that one might have voted, but not “for change,” in an election with no incumbent. What would such a vote consist of? “Actually, no. I wrote in W. for a third term. Here’s hoping we can get that pesky term-limit issue ironed out in time for January 20!”

The candidates on MNF

November 3rd, 2008  |  Tags: , ,  |  3 Comments

I just saw the much-hyped halftime interviews with the two presidential candidates. As you might expect, Berman’s quesions were largely breezy and insubstantial. Sen. Obama had a far better answer to the “What would you change about sports?” query (college football playoffs, vs. Sen. McCain’s concern about winning the war on performance-enhancing drugs) and seemed more vital overall, but he did egregiously misuse the first-person reflexive pronoun when he urged everyone to be sure to exercise their franchise “whether you’re supporting Sen. McCain or myself.” I’ll call it a push.

As much as each ad for Monday Night Football increased my dread for the prospect of ESPN injecting itself into the political process — it’s not hard to imagine the rush to the l.c.d. there1 — I think the format worked well for both candidates and served as sort of a palate cleanser before Election Day. Each was offered an opportunity to banter, elevate himself above the sludge of the campaign season, and give a weary republic, for an instant, a glimpse of why anyone liked either of these guys in the first place.

1 e.g. “What’s the most tired sports metaphor you can think of for your campaign?” “Next question.”, or an endless bracketed tournament of “Greatest Campaign Gaffes of All Time!” with commentary by Stephen A. Smith, Joe Thiesmann, and Eric Wynalda.

  • After his guilty verdict was delivered through the intertubes, I remarked to Andrea that getting Ted Stevens for $250k of undisclosed home improvements is sort of like nailing Al Capone for tax evasion.

  • Why you shouldn’t bother voting. I don’t expect I will take this advice, but I must say that the zealous fervor and demagoguery of the election season is probably one of the five or six things I find most distasteful about America.


That Obama iPhone application

October 8th, 2008  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Last week Sen. Obama’s campaign released an iPhone application designed, as far as I can tell, to help people more efficiently annoy the living crap out of their friends. The reaction from weblogs I read and twitter users that I follow was overwhelmingly positive, and given the pedigrees of the programmers involved, I have no reason to believe that the application is not well-designed and effective at what it does. However, I find myself almost completely creeped out by the whole thing. Honestly, random people who insist that I make a public confession of faith in their preferred candidate have had no trouble finding and pestering me even before I could be an “Insufficient zeal” item on a smoothly-animated, multi-touch enabled bullet list.

The first non-positive comment on this application I encountered in my feed reader came from Wolf Rentzsch, who noted that the use cases for the application seem to reduce one’s friends to “resources to exploit to further [one’s] political ideology.” Rentzsch compares Obama’s proselytes to “religious crazies,” which I think is unfair. I’ve had far better conversations with the kempt and friendly members of various cults who come to my door than I have ever had with the clipboard-addled, talking-point-infected scumbags who want me to vote for someone or to sign something without reading it.

I was curious, so I installed the Official Obama ’08 iPhone and iPod Touch Application, but it made my phone go haywire: repeatedly calling everyone in my contacts list who isn’t a U.S. citizen or is recently deceased; applying some bizarre Shepard Fairey halftone effect to all of my photos in the Camera Roll; replacing Marker Felt in the Notes application with what I am pretty sure is an unlicensed version of Gotham; etc. I had to remove it.

The experience got me thinking, though: while there are clearly a lot of useless iPhone applications, there aren’t that many that are actively socially hostile like this. I wonder what other applications might fit in this model?


(Click the image for a larger version.)

Fools’ names and fools’ faces

April 15th, 2008  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  2 Comments

I generally try to avoid paying attention in even-numbered years unless I have a ready supply of antiemetics, but I’m always happy to read about the competing goals of different typeface choices. Perhaps the most delightful thing that I read during my hiatus from posting here was this snarky riff on the typographic choices of presidential campaigns — and the questionable design goals each seem to aim for — from the always entertaining and quotable Hoefler & Frere-Jones Blog. (Note to typeface designers with weblogs: “mocking national politicians,” “type nerdery,” and “snarky riffs” become so much more powerful when combined, just like Voltron.)

Immediately preceding that post was a cute piece reflecting Hoefler’s delight that Barack Obama’s campaign is using H&FJ Gotham for some of their signage. As Gary Hustwit points out, Gotham’s aesthetic recalls Modernism and its attendant idealism — themes that resonate with Obama’s progressive base. (I suspect it is also resonates with voters who love flawless and absurdly expensive digital fonts with restrictive licenses.)

To my eye, Gotham is the finest typeface choice from any of these campaigns, both for its quality and for its rhetorical compatibility with the candidate. However, I note that Obama’s main wordmark does not use H&FJ faces. Rather, the ubiquitous Obama yard signs and bumper stickers employ two classic Eric Gill faces: Perpetua and Gill Sans. I am not sure if there is a similarly felicitous design goal behind this design choice. If I had to guess, though, I’d assume that this choice increases the campaign’s appeal among dog lovers.

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