Improv skills lead to success

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Review of The Constitution of Algorithms

leave a comment »

Title: The Constitution of Algorithms

Author: Florian Jaton

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2020

ISBN13: 978-0-262-54214-2

Length: 381

Price: $60.00

Disclosure: I received a promotional copy of this book.

There is a vast literature on the process of writing efficient computer programs, but relatively little has been written about the human processes in which those programs are created. In The Constitution of Algorithms, ethnographer Florian Jaton documents his active participation in multi-year project at a Swiss image processing lab to prepare the ground for further research into the human elements of computer programming.

Preparing the Ground

Algorithms, which Jaton loosely defines as computerized methods of calculation, form the backbone of computer programming. These recipes, when properly developed and tested in the image processing context, yield reliable results that compare favorably with human judgment. He breaks the algorithm generation process into three parts: ground-truthing, programming, and formulating.

Ground-truthing is the process of establishing a data set with known correct characteristics. In Jaton’s case, because he joined a group developing face identification (as opposed to facial recognition) technologies, that meant hiring thousands of individuals through Amazon Mechanical Turk to look at a collection of photos and identify the regions, if any, within each image that contained a human face. The team reviewed these evaluations and discarded those that were incorrect. From that base, team members (including Jaton) could engage in programming to create algorithms to identify faces in the photos, which could be compared to the ground truth arrived at earlier. The final section, on formulation, looks at the mathematical underpinnings of these computational techniques. In a real sense the math is the most fundamental aspect of the project, but it wouldn’t make sense to present it earlier because the intended audience of ethnographers wouldn’t have the necessary context to evaluate that information until ground-truthing and programming were described.

The ground-truthing part of machine learning is particularly interesting…one goal of recognition-driven image processing is to identify meaningful, or salient, aspects of a collection of pixels that an algorithm can use to return a true or false value (face or not a face). Salience is tricky – one promising algorithm that distinguished cats from dogs turned out to have been trained on an image set where most of the cats had a collar with a tag and the dogs did not. The algorithm latched onto those tags and, while that criterion worked well for the training set, it failed when applied to other images. I’m also glad that Jaton called out the human effort required to tag thousands of images or perform similar tasks, which is one of the hidden secrets of many machine learning efforts.

Programming as a (Socio)Logical Process

When describing the programming process using a formal system, the author turns to sociotechnical graphs (STGs), which assign a letter to a specific task in a process and track how the tasks enter, move within, and potentially exit a technical process. The author notes that STGs have fallen by the wayside for this type of analysis, and I can see why. While it might be relatively easy for an analyst deeply embedded in a process to keep track of which letter corresponds to which task, doing so will strain a reader’s working memory and make interpreting the STG difficult. I’m not a sociologist and don’t have a recommendation for an alternative system, but I found the STGs hard to read.

What I did enjoy were the Jaton’s interactions with other members of the lab’s team while he developed and corrected an algorithm to generate rectangles that contained faces identified by workers in the Amazon Mechanical Turk program. The common myth of the lonely programmer fueled by caffeine and spite is, thankfully, mostly fiction. Effective programmers seek out advice and assistance, which the author’s colleagues were happy to provide. The lab director took on an outsider with limited coding skills, but Jaton’s willingness and apparent ability to make beneficial technical contributions surely led to friendly and productive interactions.


The Constitution of Algorithms is adapted from Jaton’s doctoral dissertation, which he admits in the foreword was “cumbersome.” There are a few uncommon phrasings and word substitution errors that made it by the editors, but overall Jaton and his MIT Press colleagues did an excellent job of transforming a specialized academic text into a book intended for a broader audience. I believe The Constitution of Algorithms will be useful for sociologists in general, ethnographers in particular, and other analysts who could benefit from a formal approach to the analysis of software development.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media. He has also created more than 80 online training courses for LinkedIn Learning. He received his undergraduate degree in political science from Syracuse University and his MBA from the University of Illinois. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

June 8, 2021 at 12:37 am

Curate a Shelf

leave a comment »

Movie Madness, a local independent video store in Portland, Oregon, was in danger of closing. The non-profit Hollywood Theater crowdfunded its purchase of the business, offering some interesting reward levels along the way. The reward level my wife and I picked allowed us to select six to eight movies that will be displayed at Movie Madness for a month, with a write-up for each explaining why we chose them. Ginny let me pick the movies (she’s kind that way), so I thought I’d share my selections and why I chose them.

Living in Oblivion

Tom DeCillo’s movie about making a movie developed from a 20-minute one-act to a feature film over the course of several years. If you avoid movies about making movies, don’t worry—Living in Oblivion makes fun of the tired tropes found in the typical navel-gazing independent film. Even better, it features Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James Legros (totally not playing Brad Pitt), and Peter Dinklage in his feature film debut. It’s well worth your time.

Rollerball (1975)

This film is the 1975 original, starring James Caan and John Houseman, not the 2001 remake. The dystopian themes might seem a bit contrived after The Hunger Games and, even further back, William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, but the sociopolitical commentary in the original Rollerball strikes a chord today. As you catalog the familiar themes from contemporary films, realize that Rollerball came out 43 years ago and be amazed at its relevance. An overlooked classic.


Crossword puzzles represent a rigorous, though oddly specific, test of human ingenuity. This documentary, which centers on the annual crossword competition in Stamford, Connecticut, highlights the creativity, stress, and joy of solving the most popular puzzle form in the world. Wordplay focuses on the highest level of competitive crossword solving, but don’t forget to look for the puzzle creators, editors, and enthusiasts who keep the community alive.

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Documentaries are driven by interesting personalities. King of Kong is no exception. The arcade video game Donkey Kong combines skill and pattern recognition with just enough randomness to break a player’s heart. Steve Wiebe (the mild-mannered hero) and Billy Mitchell (the heel) battle to be the first to break one million points at the game. You might have seen their names in the news recently. If so, I don’t want to give away the plot…watch King of Kong, and then check the news.

Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino’s career has taken a bit of a hit as past transgressions have come to light, but Pulp Fiction is an outstanding film. Scenes appear out of order, Samuel L. Jackson plays an amazing and ultimately insightful hit man, and co-stars including John Travolta, Harvey Keitel, Bruce Willis, and Uma Thurman bring the story home. This movie isn’t for you if you avoid violence on screen, but otherwise it’s an interesting story that keeps you engaged.

Lock, Stock, and 2 Smoking Barrels

This film made Guy Ritchie’s name in the U.S. A set of English street scammers (watch for the jewelry bag switch in the opening scene) get heavily in debt to a loan shark who runs a chain of porn shops. The film takes on the feel of a caper complete with copious amounts of weed, finding and losing two antique shotguns, and enjoying how Sting, Jason Statham, and former Manchester United hard man Vinnie Jones add to the festivities. There’s plenty of on-screen violence, especially in the unrated edition, but this film is the best of Ritchie’s offerings.

Written by curtisfrye

May 3, 2018 at 2:56 am

Page 187

leave a comment »

Donald Trump just hit page 187.

Allow me to explain. Most contemporary nonfiction books with a dramatic arc run about 350 pages. The first part of the narrative builds up the protagonist, showing his or her path to the pinnacle of their experience. Of course, books about situations where everything goes smoothly don’t sell as well as books with flawed heroes whose fortunes take a turn for the worse. Based on a quick and completely unscientific check of five books in my library, that point appears to come around page 187.

The American media treated Donald Trump as a curiosity and an easy ratings boost until the Republican national convention in July. Now that he has secured the Republican presidential nomination, it’s time for the story to change. Earning the nomination is only the first half of the plot — there’s still another 150 to 200 pages to go.

As Marco Rubio might’ve said four or five times, let’s dispense with the fiction that the media doesn’t know what they’re doing. They know exactly what they’re doing. Up until now, coverage of Donald Trump has focused on the spectacle he creates among his followers. With infrequent (but increasing) exceptions, the media has simply broadcast his statements without significant comment. While there were some challenges from the mainstream media, especially liberal outlets such as MSNBC, most of the conversation surrounding Trump’s utterances reflected disbelief rather than critique.

Now that we are into August, and Trump is officially the nominee, it seems that the media has adopted a new approach. A much more aggressive approach. It’s in the media’s best interest to ensure that Trump remains a viable candidate for as long as possible so they have a race to cover, but they also have a duty to report and interpret the news. Setting aside the laughably inappropriate Fox News motto “We report, you decide”, and MSNBC’s admittedly liberal coverage, it’s now time for news outlets not owned by Rupert Murdoch to satisfy consumer desire by tearing Trump down from the top of the wall he has built. And who knows, maybe the Wall Street Journal will take a stand as well. I don’t expect positive mentions of Hillary Clinton on the Journal’s editorial page, but I don’t anticipate a ringing endorsement of Trump, either.

The trick to tearing down a public figure is to not empty your clip in one burst. There are 99 days until the general election, so media outlets will need to distribute their material over that time. Fortunately, Trump has given them plenty of items work with, helpfully distributing his offensive utterances over categories including, but not limited to: racism, sexism, abuse, ignorance of world affairs, and extreme sensitivity to criticism. The trick is not to find examples of unpresidential behavior, but rather to narrow down the available material into a coherent narrative and avoid saturating audiences with negative coverage.

Research has shown that a political attack ad or piece of adverse news coverage lives in voter memory for about three days. The 24-hour news cycle has changed that consideration a bit, but you don’t want to depress your viewers whenever they switch to your channel. As we work our way from page 188 to 350, we’ll see the media taking occasional breaks from a critical coverage of both candidates. Doing so gives consumers a chance to rest before the next plot point. That’s how accomplished storytellers ply their trade. Rest assured, though, that all respites will be temporary.

Donald Trump’s media strategy was to earn all of the free coverage he wanted. By some estimates, he’s already gotten over $1 billion of media time simply for being outrageous. If he truly believes that there is a no such thing as bad publicity, then the next 99 days should be an absolute joy.

I suspect he’ll change his mind.

Written by curtisfrye

August 1, 2016 at 11:03 am

Dr. Adam Gazzaley: Gaming and Brain (OHSU Brain Awareness Series)

leave a comment »

Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) is a leading research and teaching institution located in Portland. They run a speaker series every year, with this year’s presentations centered on the brain. I’d forgotten to put the talk in my Outlook calendar, so I was very happy to receive a reminder message earlier Monday.

Our Speaker

The speaker, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, is a member of the faculty at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and, as required by California state law, a co-founder of and adviser to a start-up company. That company, Akili Interactive Labs, produces games designed to provide cognitive benefits to players who play the games for 30-minute sessions three times a week over the course of a month or two. Gazzaley is an engaging speaker, though it seems like he’s spent a lot of his recent appearances speaking more about ideas and vision than hard science. As another attendee remarked in the lobby after the talk, “His presentation was more like a performance than a science lecture.” That approach isn’t surprising, given that he co-founded a company and has to compete for investment funds, so I didn’t think it was a problem.

I have to admit that my heart sank a bit when I realized the presentation focused on brain training using games. Lumosity recently agreed to pay a $2 million fine to settle a U.S. Federal Trade Commission deceptive advertising action that claimed the company’s brain games could help students and seniors improve mental performance. Gazzaley was quick to point out that Akili’s games are going through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process, with their first game ready to move from a pilot program step to wider public testing. Unlike Lumosity’s claims and those of “nutraceutical” supplements (available in stores throughout the U.S. or your favorite multi-level marketing scheme) which make claims that have not been evaluated by the FDA, Akili is going through the rigorous, some would say onerous, testing required by the FDA before it will back up claims of a product’s efficacy. Gazzaley emphasized that if the games don’t pass FDA trials the first time around, they’ll revise them and try again.

Works in Progress

Gazzaley showed several games that combine motor skills and recognition tasks. The game that’s farthest along in testing is a driving game where the player attempts to keep a vehicle centered on a winding road using a joystick. The player must also press the joystick’s button when the vehicle passes under a sign that displays a designated symbol from a set of possible designs. The game’s adaptive algorithms increase or decrease the difficulty level based on the player’s performance, with the goal of encouraging an upward path. The player must switch between the two tasks — as switching becomes more fluid, their score increases. Gazzaley noted that “humans love to level up” regardless of age, a finding borne out by gamification research, so games are a natural mode for brain training.

He also noted that there is the possibility games can be used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, ADHD, and other conditions. While his work on games as treatment is still in the very early stages, there is the potential for significant advances. This research program will benefit from new devices such as Oculus Rift or Microsoft’s HoloLens, which generate virtual reality spaces in which a player may act. There are also interesting new neurological measurement devices, such as a whole-head electroencephalogram (EEG) helmet that transmits data to a waiting computer, that can provide researchers additional flexibility in measuring brain activity. I also see great potential for other serious game applications involving teams, such as squad-level military exercises or firefighting, though Dr. Gazzaley said that he’s not aware of any work yet in that area.


I enjoyed Dr. Gazzaley’s presentation. Yes, it was a little flashier and a little less sciencey than other talks I’ve attended, but he provided a lot of useful information and compelling demonstrations that made the hour fly by. I will definitely follow his work in the coming years.

Marshawn Lynch and the Broken Sports Media Model

leave a comment »

I’ve long been on record, not that anyone cared, as being in favor of a law banning the post-game interview. Professional athletes who have just spent 60-to-90 minutes of game time busting their guts for our entertainment shouldn’t be forced to answer questions asked for the sole purpose of getting a meaningless quote for an article or a four-second sound bite on television.

Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks is calling out the absurdity of the system prior to Super Bowl L-1, but there are plenty of other examples from popular culture. Crash Davis drilling Nuke LaLouche on his cliches in Bull Durham, Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons giving the same answer to every question after a disappointing playoff loss, or the carefully measured statements Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, and LeBron James offer in their media appearances come to mind immediately. They all use language to discharge their responsibilities while maintaining as much privacy as possible.

What interesting information could Marshawn Lynch, or any other Super Bowl participant, provide without compromising their game plan? The fact they’re happy to be there and are taking it one game at a time isn’t interesting, but reporters ask their questions so they can get a fresh quote (any quote) to round out their article or broadcast segment.

The problem extends to broadcast and commentary as well. Julius Erving said that he quit his studio commentary gig because he was tired of dumbing basketball down to second-grade level. Richard Sherman, the amazing cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, similarly challenged a reporter, who persisted in trying to get Sherman to compare himself to a cornerback on the New England Patriots, to ask him questions that weren’t at “nursery school” level.

Even the broadcasters know what’s up. In a hilariously open and honest segment on a hockey broadcast I watched last year, two of them admitted as much. A player who had just retired joined the broadcast team in the booth and expressed an interest in becoming a color commentator.

Play-by-Play Guy: Go ahead and give a shot!

Recently Retired Player: I have no idea what to say.

Color Commentator (also a former player): It doesn’t matter…just say it with energy.

Recently Retired Player: The Sharks need to pick it up here!!!

(all laugh)

Color Commentator: See!!??

I’d much rather that professional athletes be given the opportunity to speak with the media after or before a game but that it not be mandatory, even for the stars. I care about the game. Pre-game interviews are not the game. Post-game interviews are not the game. Three days of mandatory media appearances before the Super Bowl are definitely not the game.

We get just as much meaningful information when Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, or LeBron James don’t speak to the media as when they do. Let’s enjoy sports for what they are and stop pretending we have a personal connection to the competitors.

Book Review: Virtual Economies from MIT Press

leave a comment »

Title: Virtual Economies

Authors: Vili Lehdonvirta and Edward Castronova

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-02725-0

Length: 294

Price: $45.00

Rating: 94%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Designing playable, let alone interesting, video games is difficult. Massive multiplayer games, especially those that allow trade among players, increase design complexity considerably. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds, tweaking prices of individual items or resources to make them more or less accessible to the players and finding the best ways to move money into or out of the game’s economy.

In the face of that complexity, designers must remember their primary goal: earning money for the publisher. Early in Virtual Economies, Lehdonvirta and Castronova lay out the three main objectives of virtual economy design: creating content (both by the producers and the players), attracting and retaining users (attention), and monetizing the game’s virtual resources to create an income stream for the producers. These objectives frame their analysis throughout the book, providing a coherent narrative that emphasizes the importance of designing a system so it generates revenues needed to sustain a game or community.

Unintended Consequences

One source of joy and fear for designers is discovering how their users will creatively exploit the rules of a game to create the experience they want. In fact, the authors point out that designing an inefficient currency might make a game more playable, perhaps because players would develop strategies and tactics to work around the inefficiencies or negotiation and trust issues would lead to interesting player interactions.

You can also try to make virtual money through traditional economic activity. In games, as in any economy, some players search for arbitrage opportunities. When discrepancies arise between the objective value of an item and its perceived value, investors can attempt to make a profit by buying or selling the item. In the stock market, these inefficiencies might arise when a company’s stock is undervalued because investors give too much weight to recent sales data. Investors can buy the stock, hold it until it reaches its proper value, and sell to collect the profits.

Some games offer more straightforward examples, such as allowing users to buy a leather jerkin at a shop in one part of the virtual world and sell it in another region for a significant profit. In either case, players who enjoy this type of activity can take advantage of in-game commercial opportunities.

Faucets and Sinks

Just as players try to acquire game resources, designers must find ways to remove those resources from the game. Maintaining the proper flow of money using macroeconomic policies requires a tricky balancing act between having too much or not enough money in the system. Without income, players can’t buy items they need or desire, but too much money produces in-game inflation that puts even routine purchases out of reach of newer players.

Lehdonvirta and Castronova describe how designers can use money faucets and money sinks to add or remove virtual currency from the game. Money faucets might be as simple as gaining treasure from killing orcs or as complex as arbitrage, while money sinks could include maintenance costs for dwellings, replacing damaged equipment, or securing transport to remote areas.

Virtual Becomes Real

Finally, it’s entirely possible for in-game items and virtual currency to cross over into the real world. Some rare World of Warcraft items command hundreds of dollars on eBay or elsewhere and entire companies in Romania and China make money through “gold mining” (defeating monsters to gain their treasure and selling the gold to other players) or leveling up characters for players who lack either the time or inclination to do it themselves.

Virtual currency can also be used in place of real money for physical transactions, as happened with the Q coin used in Chinese producer Tencent’s game Tencent QQ. A lack of credit cards or easy online payment hampered online commerce in China at the time, so players used Q coins as a medium of exchange. Players transferred Q coins to settle debts or, after the company (at the insistence of the People’s Bank of China) limited the amount that could be transferred at one time, created accounts with standard amounts of Q coins and gave their transaction partners the account’s password.


Virtual Economies combines standard material found in earlier works such as The Economics of Electronic Commerce with new applications told through the eyes of individuals who are both academic analysts and practitioners. Specifically, Lehdonvirta and Castronova provide a substantial overview of traditional economics, such as supply and demand curves and marginal analysis, as well as more recent topics from behavioral economics that help explain why and how individuals deviate from the traditional rational actor model. Add in discussions of what makes for a good currency, how markets function, and macroeconomic issues removes the need for students to buy multiple texts to get the full picture.

Many professors and independent readers will choose to supplement this book’s information with reading packets and online resources, but Virtual Economies could easily stand alone in any context. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

January 5, 2015 at 10:00 am

Theatre, Sensationalism, and Double Standards

leave a comment »

Like many of you, I was surprised to see Lindsay Lohan had been cast to play the part of Karen, the manipulative temporary secretary, in a London production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. It’s not unusual for British actors to shoot a movie during the day and do a play at night, but it’s different for Americans and I think of Lohan as a movie performer. There’s a huge difference between memorizing a few lines (that might have been changed two minutes ago) for a movie shot and preparing to do a major role in a live performance.

Lohan’s performance during the first preview appears to have been a bit ragged. Reporters at the performance agreed that she was nervous and messed up a few of her lines. That’s not unusual for a first preview…it’s the cast’s initial run with civilians in the house and everyone’s nervous. The pressure must be even more intense for someone who is trying to turn her career around. Given Lohan’s issues, I imagine the production paid a substantial sum for insurance against her ability to fulfill her contract.

That said, a few flubbed lines is nothing to be ashamed of in a first preview. My wife, another friend, and I saw several shows in London just before Lohan started her run. A very well-credentialed stage actor in Great Britain, a play based on the News of the World phone hacking scandal, jumped his lines twice in about ten minutes. In Richard III, Martin Freeman, the beloved actor who plays Dr. Watson in the popular BBC version of Sherlock, mushed his way through a line during a heated exchange and closed with “…or something like that.”

Both Great Britain and Richard III were well into their runs (in fact, Richard III just closed), so there’s nothing to say except that it’s live theatre — things happen. No one reported the other actors’ errors, so let’s give Lindsay Lohan the benefit of the doubt for a while. If she’s still missing lines after the show officially opens, then we can complain. Until then, let’s hope she can model her recovery after Robert Downey, Jr. and enjoy some success after a long string of bad decisions.

Microsoft and Minecraft

leave a comment »

It appears likely that Microsoft will announce it has finalized a deal to acquire Mojang, the Swedish company that created Minecraft. I think it’s a great idea.

Minecraft is huge–players of all ages build creations that demonstrate their creativity and test the limits of the platform. Business analysts have asked why Microsoft would want to buy Mojang. The game is available on the PC but not Windows Phone because of the latter’s 2.5% market share, but it doesn’t seem likely that a single game, even a tremendous hit, would bring $2.5 billion in added revenue to Microsoft.

It’s true that Minecraft won’t make Microsoft a mobile front-runner, but Mojang’s insights into the Minecraft community’s wants, needs, and emergent behavior could be worth much more than the hefty purchase price. Microsoft has made strides toward listening to and acting on user input, such as by altering Windows 8.1 and, if leaked screen shots are to be believed, Windows 9/Threshold to be more in line with user preferences. Bringing in the Mojang team could provide similar insights to teams across Microsoft, allowing the folks in Redmond to incorporate what they learn into future products and giving them a fighting chance of thriving in the mobile world.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Randall Munroe’s Presentation

leave a comment »

The last of the three STDP2 presentations I’ll review was by Randall Munroe, creator of the online comic xkcd. I’ve read xkcd for years and am constantly amazed at the quality of his work.

Munroe started out by noting that it’s ridiculously easy to get in your own way by trying to automate a process that can be done perfectly well by hand. As an example, consider a chart showing character interactions in the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movies.


Original source:


Gandalf’s a plot hack.

                            – Randall Munroe

Munroe said that he tried for ten years, off and on, to develop a tool that could translate a script into a character interaction timeline. Finally, frustrated, he drew the graph for the original Star Wars trilogy by hand in an hour. I imagine the timeline for 12 Angry Men took slightly less time to complete.

Displaying data is easy, Munroe argued, but determining which data to show is tough. That said, some presentation modes are better than others. Once he finds an angle he likes, he looks for other ways he can leverage that approach. Recently, he published a graphic on California droughts that uses the physical shape of the state as its axes. I’d love to see this design metaphor used in other graphics.


Original source:


He makes his infographics more palatable by adding humor, such as asides about a specific data point or a joke to indicate that, while he takes the analysis seriously, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. That approach lets him reveal that the Environmental Protection Agency assigns a human life an economic value of $8.2 million when performing cost-benefit analysis without inciting his readers.

Munroe came across as a soft-spoken, gentle person who is still slightly uncomfortable speaking in public. That said, his resolve strengthened when he discussed his wife’s cancer diagnosis and how he communicated the realities of treatment and survival rates. The image that resulted, “Lanes”, is one of the most powerful infographics I’ve encountered.


Original source:


He didn’t want to leave us on such a somber note, so he concluded by showing us a graphic called “Lakes and Oceans” that he thought was interesting but nothing special. It shows the relative depths of  various bodies of water and the ocean floor. He was surprised to discover it was one of the most popular things he published that year.


Original source:


I enjoyed my time in Seattle. The presentations by Jonathan Corum, Maria Popova, and Randall Munroe gave me a burst of energy that have let me approach my own work from a fresh perspective.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Jonathan Corum’s Presentation

leave a comment »

We all have different ways of refreshing our perspectives and energies. I’m not a public person and don’t care much for gurus, but I saw the See, Think, Design, Produce seminar, organized by Edward Tufte and presented at the Westin Seattle on August 7, as a terrific opportunity to gain insights into leading professionals’ design thinking patterns.

The day’s program featured four speakers: Jonathan Corum from the New York Times; Maria Popova, curator of Brain Pickings; Randall Munroe, author of the xkcd online comic; and Edward Tufte, the design and communication guru. I got a lot out of the day — three of the four sessions were well worth my time and the other, unfortunately, reinforced criticism I’d heard from attendees of other events.

Jonathan Corum designs information visualizations for the New York Times. His work runs the gamut from seemingly simple graphics to full-on productions incorporating video and interactive web programming. He was first attracted to design work when he was quite young, when he used his pattern matching skills to see and recognize a person in the distance after a glance even though he couldn’t see that individual’s face. This event, as simple as it seems, eventually led him to see the possibilities of communicating by designing effective visualizations.

As an example, he showed illustrations from an Audubon Society book on bumblebees. The book’s graphics showed the pattern, variation, time, and location of numerous bumblebee species. The graphics were compact, easy to understand, and contained a lot of information. Corum moved onto thinking about visualizations, which in his case means sketching possible designs to communicate a concept, underlying data, or both. He emphasized that sketches are not commitments and showed a New York Times visualization that had gone through 265 iterations. “You try different things,” he said, “so that you can find something your brain recognizes, remember that aha moment, and communicate your understanding.”

Regarding design, he begged us to do more than collect and visualize trivia — whatever we display should add up to something and show meaningful patterns. As a data journalist (my term, not his), he emphasized that visualization does not equal explanation. We have to add an extra layer of explanation to be sure that our intended message gets across. When it comes time to produce a visualization, you have to learn to embrace the limitations of your medium and, in some cases, design the content to meet those restrictions.

Because video recordings of Olympic events are owned by the International Olympic Committee, for example, the New York Times had to display images of half-pipe snowboarders and downhill slalom skiers using a series of overlaid still photographs. Embracing that limitation resulted in a compelling composite image complete with callouts indicating the physical techniques the competitors used to execute a maneuver and set up for the next one.

Corum’s role as a journalist requires him to think of a broader audience, rather than just designing for an audience of one. It all comes down, he stated, to having respect for the reader or viewer, and to remember what it’s like to encounter a topic for the first time when you design a visualization.