New Year’s Letter

For anyone who did not get a copy of this years end-of-year newsletter, click here to download it.

Over the years, I have found many holiday letters force the reader to read everything and then they can decide afterwards what parts they did and did not have an interest in reading.  We decided to let the reader pick and choose up front and to put in a variety of content themes.  We hope you like it.

Technical note: For those of you who are techies, I hand-edited all of the photos in Photoshop and created each of the five pages in Photoshop.  The pages were printed to PDF using the Adobe printer driver as it makes for smaller pages than the “Save As” feature in Photoshop.

Review: Beautiful Evidence by Tufte

I read Tufte’s early works many years ago, but I had not seen any of his more recent work and so I bought a hard copy of Beautiful Evidence (2006) this past month.  He is a man who talks about design and it shows in the fabrication of his book which is a physical pleasure to pick up with its high quality paper, selection and fonts, and wonderful images from a variety of disciplines.

The book can be picked up by a beginner to the subject of visualization.  It starts slowly talking about how information is mapped into the visual space.  It’s interesting, though a bit on the esoteric side.  For example, he shows diagrams from the 18th century on how to perform a dance.  While intricate and clever in their notation, I find such materials to be completely antiquated.  A properly edited video showing closeups of real people combines melody, rhythm, and dance moves in ways that printed diagrams cannot come close to replicating regardless of their sophistication.  Clearly, for some forms of communication, the printed word or picture is not the best medium.

However, when he moves into the discussion of word-sized graphics which he calls sparklines (a term he invented), his discussion is both persuasive and compelling.  Graphics don’t need to be half pages with 99.9% white space.  They can be the height of type and 7-10 characters long and convey a massive amount of information.   Likewise, when he moves to analysis of Feynman diagrams, he shows that small, colorful, symbolic, and notated graphics compact a great deal of information.  Think of electronics diagrams.

His section on principles of analytical design is equally illuminating.  He uses a 19th century diagram of Napoleon’s troop movements to illustrate a number of principles.  I think this is particularly brilliant because we tend to assume that we are smarter than people 150 years ago instead of just knowing more.  An insightful design 150 years ago still shines upon brilliant analysis.

I’m not sure that I really understood the importance of including the last section on sculptural pedestals.  It struck me as more of the author’s personal interest than really adding to the content of the book he was writing, and I would have preferred more reading on some of the other subjects.  But this is minor, and does not diminish the insights or obvious effort that he spent creating the work.


Could have been killed

Today my girlfriend and I were to take off in a plane from topside Molokai to Honolulu for a few days away from the settlement.  The plane was a single engine Cessna, and one of the very few to be certified to carry commercial passengers over water since it only has one engine.  Anyway, we had to wait from 10:30 until about 2:30 because the plane was dead on the tarmack.  The engine would not start; we were told it was the igniters, and the second set of the them had failed.  We had to wait for the mechanic to come over from Honolulu and bring parts.   Anyway, I took special note of where the life vests were located and decided it was OK since the mechanic was in the seat next to me.  The pilot was in a rush to get the plane over to Honolulu as he said it needed to turn around in Honolulu to come back and do another run.

Photo of the plane taken by another plane traveling by.

Well, the story is predictable.  The plane returned to Molokai and picked up a full load of passengers at the settlement.  The engine failed shortly after lift off and the plane ended up in the ocean with a tragic result.  One passenger, the governer’s Health Director (who approved Obama’s birth certificate), died in the water before being picked up.  As someone who has worked a lot with electro-mechanical systems (see article about my old car), I know how hard it is to properly diagnose such problems.  That’s why I had the concern about getting in the plane.  Whether or not the plane should have been placed into the hangar for close examination and maintenance is something the FAA and the courts will determine.

FYI, one passenger, a former marine, swam an hour against the current to get to the rocks of the island where he reportedly pulled out a waterproof phone and called his wife.  Semper Fi!