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

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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.

movie_narrative_charts

Original source: http://xkcd.com/657/

 

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.

california

Original source: http://xkcd.com/1410/

 

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.

lanes

Original source: http://xkcd.com/931/

 

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.

lakes_and_oceans

Original source: http://xkcd.com/1040/

 

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

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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.

Chess as a game (among many)

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Chess is often called “the queen of games”, at least in Western culture. The game’s austere appearance, when combined with its tactical and strategic depth, provides an air of challenge and mystery.

In many ways, chess is the prototypical Western game. Strategies and tactics are direct, with little progress to be made unless you directly confront your opponent. Chess is also a perfect information game, meaning there is no element of chance. You might not know your opponent’s next move, but there’s nothing hiding it from you. If you didn’t see what was coming, you can only blame yourself.

Although chess has increased in popularity in Asia, the traditional strategy game of Japan, China, and South Korea is go. Unlike chess, where the goal is to create a position where your opponent’s king is under attack and cannot move to a safe square, go players place their stones in an attempt to surround territory on the board. Chess boards are 8 x 8, with 64 squares, and the pieces stand on the squares. In go, the board has 19 x 19 lines, with 361 intersections, and players may place a stone on any unoccupied intersection (with a few exceptions).

The complexity of go far outstrips that of chess, at least in terms of the computation required to analyze and evaluate a position. Computers have conquered humans at chess…their calculating speed and positional evaluation let them beat even the strongest carbon-based players regularly. The most advanced go programs can only beat top professionals if they are given a substantial head start. That said, the gap is closing.

I said that chess is the prototypical Western game, but it’s mostly thought of as a European (and even more specifically, Russian) game. In America, the game of choice is poker. Poker is a gambling game, with a significant element of chance involved. You can do everything right but still lose if your opponent decides to fight the odds and draws the cards they need. Ironically, the better you play, the more of these “bad beat” stories you’ll have to tell. If you’re always in the lead, the luck of the draw means you will get chased down on occasion.

I hope I don’t sound bitter. But I am.

Do the Russians play chess, the Chinese play go, and the Americans play poker? If you look at our cultures and practices, you’ll see there’s a fair amount of truth to that statement. How well that metaphor translates to actionable intelligence is debatable, but it’s an interesting way to start a conversation.

Chess and Motivation

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To paraphrase the Great Oz, “I’m a good man, but a very bad chess player.” I can beat almost any non-serious player in a casual game, but I’m in the lower half of  those of us who pay to play on the Internet Chess Server.

And yet, even though I lose a lot more than I’d like to, I enjoy the game immensely. In some sense, I like the idea of being a chess player…there’s a certain nerdy caché to the game that fits my personality. I also enjoy my occasional successes (I wouldn’t call them brilliancies) where I’ve seen just a bit farther or evaluated a position more accurately than my opponent.

My rating, the number that indicates my relative strength as compared to my fellow competitors, swings up and down within a range that runs from kind of impressive to “maybe I should go back to Candyland.” Sometimes I feel strong, like I’m concentrating well and see the outcomes of move sequences, while at other times I make the first move I see and hope I get lucky. I’m not sure why my concentration varies so much, but it’s an interesting phenomenon.

So why, if I’m not a very good serious (or even semi-serious) player, do I keep playing? What are the psychic benefits I get from banging my head against 32 pieces and 64 squares? Sure, the game’s fun in and of itself, but what specifically keeps me coming back?

I’ll address these questions in more detail in my forthcoming series of posts, but I’ll start out with a note on what my motivation is not. A friend once said, when I was furious at myself for a series of embarrassing losses, “It would be a shame for you to give up the game after you’ve put so much into it.”

She was right in a way, but her statement is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy says that the investment (of money, or time, or whatever) you’ve made in an endeavor should affect future decisions. In fact, if you have no way of reclaiming the money or time you’ve invested in something, those “expenses” should in no way affect your future decisions. All you should care about is whether future investments are worth the cost.

I keep playing, so I obviously must think it’s worth my effort to continue. Chess is a rich game, after all, one that rewards its players for their efforts beyond rating points or games won. I look forward to examining it more closely.

Review of Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies

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Title: Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies

Author: Kristie Macrakis

Publisher: Yale University Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-300-17925-5

Length: 392

Price: $27.50

Rating: 91%

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

 

Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies, a book by Christie Macrakis, provides an interesting look into the history of invisible ink and other forms of secret writing. Much has been written about cryptography, including such classics as David Kahn’s The Codebreakers and Bruce Schneier’s Applied Cryptography, but relatively little had been published about invisible writing.

Prof. Macrakis is a professor of history, technology, and society at Georgia Tech. She’s written a number of other books on espionage-related topics, so it makes sense that she would turn her attention to invisible writing.

More Complicated than You’d Think

The problem with this sort of book is that everyone thinks invisible ink is a simple topic. Everyone who has ever owned a beginning magic book or a chemistry set knows that you can use lemon juice and a toothpick to inscribe a message on a piece of paper that only appears when the paper is heated over a flame or a lightbulb. For many years, the science of invisible writing was in fact limited to a number of easily obtained substances and the use of heat or simple developing fluids that reacted with the ink.

The study of natural magic, instituted in the Middle Ages and a precursor to the Scientific Revolution, led to number of discoveries that were of use to the prisoners, lovers, and spies named in the book’s title. During the late 16th century, the partisans fighting on behalf of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, and even Queen Mary herself, used invisible ink in their attempts to communicate secretly with their supporters.

Skipping forward a few centuries, invisible ink played a huge role in every war from the American Revolution to World War II and beyond into the Cold War. The scope and breadth of mail censorship and interception, all with the goal of discovering both indiscreet and discreet communications, was staggering. Even with the tens of thousands of letters going through the British Imperial Censorship office in Bermuda and the American stations in Miami and Puerto Rico, a total of 339 letters with secret writing were intercepted.

After the end of World War II, the Germans instituted a new means of secret communication: the microdot. These tiny circles, which could be hidden in a book as the dot on an “i” or a period, could contain a substantial amount of information for the time. As World War II ground to a close and the Cold War started, microdots played a significant role in covert communication. That’s not to say that invisible ink and secret writing went away. In fact, the author leads off the book with the story of how she came to acquire a carefully hidden East German Stasi formula for invisible ink through an archive request at the German Cold War library collection. It was a story worth waiting for.

Further Considerations

Macrakis covers specific historical periods in each chapter. She states in the introduction that she wrote the book so that anyone could dip into it and read about the time they were interested in. That choice, which is eminently reasonable, means that there is some noticeable repetition when you read the book in one go, but it’s not too distracting.

What I find particularly interesting, in addition to the art and science of the writing itself, are descriptions of the organizations put in place to detect, develop, and exploit information from secret writing. The scope of the mail interception effort during World War II is impressive. Although the author doesn’t make this comparison explicit, I can’t help but wonder what the level of effort would be in relation to current National Security Agency efforts to intercept secret communication.

The last chapter of the main part of the book gives a brief overview of steganography, which is the process of hiding a message within another file. For example, one could use the least significant bits of an image file to encode a message without changing the image’s appearance to the casual observer. Of course there are tools to detect steganographic writing, but experts in the field are extremely reluctant to talk about what they do. That means the chapter on steganography is a bit disappointing, but it’s hard to blame the author for her sources’ lack of forthrightness.

The appendix contains a number of formulas that can be used to create and reveal invisible ink. Some of the substances can be harmful to humans, so creating any of the inks or developing agents would be done strictly at your own risk. I’m glad the publisher didn’t shy away from providing these recipes, though—they’re an important part of the subject’s history and the book would be incomplete without them.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies is a worthwhile book for anyone with an interest in espionage tradecraft or who just thinks that secret writing is a fun and interesting subject. I fall into both camps, so I enjoyed Prof. Macrakis’ work. 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 lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Review of Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law

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Title: Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law

Author: Christopher Kuner

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Copyright: 2013

ISBN13: 978-0-19-967461-9

Length: 285

Price: $145.00

Rating: 100%

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Privacy law is a difficult subject to approach, let alone master. The United States has a patchwork of data protection laws at the state and federal level, often restricting government access to data that private enterprises may acquire and combine freely. Extending that analysis internationally is exponentially more difficult, due to both different legal approaches to personal data protection and the details of the laws themselves.

A Well-Qualified Author

In Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law, author Christopher Kuner summarizes international privacy law, details the differing approaches taken by various countries, reports on developments in domestic privacy law and international agreements, and offers a framework for making the laws of the various States more interoperable.

Dr. Kuner is very well qualified to take on this analysis. The brief author bio on the inside of the dust jacket notes that, in addition to his position as Senior Of Counsel with the Brussels office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, he is Vice-Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce’s Task Force on Privacy and Personal Data Protection, participates in the work of international organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), wrote European Data Protection Law: Corporate Compliance and Regulation, and is editor-in-chief of the journal International Data Privacy Law. Any one of those CV entries would be sufficient to convince me of his expertise—taken as a group they are indeed impressive.

Summary and Background

Kuner begins, as is customary in such works, with a historical synopsis of data privacy laws from the 1970s to the present. Other books, such as the Agre and Rotenberg’s edited volume Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape (1999) and my own Privacy-Enhanced Business (2001), go into significant detail on the development of data privacy laws in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and elsewhere. Kuner, by virtue of his experience in the field, is able to focus his coverage on the aspects of the laws that will most benefit policy makers and legal practitioners.

Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law focuses on European data protection laws, many of which were drafted or modified in response to the EU Data Protection Directive 95/46. European Union laws tend to be the most restrictive, with idiosyncratic laws such as the U.S. Video Privacy Protection Act (passed in response to private investigators accessing Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video rental records) as notable exceptions, so it makes sense to use that regime as the baseline for analysis.

EU laws treat data protection as a fundamental right, on par with constitutional rights in the US. Casting privacy in that light means EU policies must be evaluated against those rights, rather than against the rather more vague protections afforded privacy in the US as a penumbral right implied by certain amendments to the Constitution.

Further Considerations

After his overview of privacy policies, Kuner discusses the types of regulatory systems available, the differences among them, and the role of technology in privacy regulation. He points out, quite correctly, that legislation naming specific technologies will become obsolete almost immediately. On the other hand, individuals and institutions can protect personally identifiable information using privacy-enhancing technologies. For example, in addition to encryption technologies, data collectors could use geolocation sensors to pinpoint their location to identify which laws apply. As he notes, however:

[U]sing geolocation to control access to data can also undermine data protection, since determining the location of users can make them more identifiable. Thus geolocation can be useful in specific cases, but also raises data protection concerns.

Data that has been anonymized, or stripped of links to the individuals whom the data represents, is another tactic to render personally identifiable information safe. The author cites the proposed General Data Protection Regulation of the European Commission, which provides that “the principles of data protection should not apply to data rendered anonymous in such a way that the data subject is no longer identifiable”. Unfortunately, at least from the data protection standpoint, there has been significant progress in data de-anonymization. The mostly true folk wisdom that knowing an individual’s birthdate and postal code allows US data aggregators to correctly identify 70% of individuals is just the tip of a mammoth analytical iceberg. Reprocessing of medical test data, for example, has allowed researchers to link database records to specific individuals with very high accuracy.

Kuner also examines the role of extraterritoriality in data protection law. Certain policies and conventions, including one proposed by the International Chamber of Commerce, require each Party to the agreement to ensure that data transferred to processors outside the Party’s territory in accordance with the originating party’s laws. He notes elsewhere in the book that subsequent transfers to other processors don’t necessarily create a chain of responsibility back to the originating entity, but where responsibility ends, or even attenuates, is an open question.

Data rarely moves between States without crossing intervening jurisdictions. Kuner cites commentary indicating data transiting across the territory of a State doesn’t constitute a transfer, but even there the mechanics of data transmission come into play. Data is often stored on servers for some time as a normal part of transfers, either in a “store and forward” network or in an e-mail system. The US federal government has argued that e-mail stored on a server is no longer “in transit” and is therefore subject to different rules than are applied to “freely flowing” data. How that policy conflict will be resolved, if it is in fact recognized, is uncertain.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Because of the divergent nature of policies and laws among the various States and the difficulty in negotiating treaties, Kuner recommends a pluralistic approach to harmonizing international data protection regimes. Pluralistic harmonization is a slow and uncertain process, but it is the most realistic option at present. The difficulties of negotiating EU data protection agreements, even when granting specific exceptions such as the UK’s extended transition from paper to electronic records, argue strongly in favor of a more organic approach.

Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law focuses on commercial and routine governmental activity and, as such, doesn’t cover national security law and practice, which the US uses to justify programs such as ECHELON and other National Security Agency programs revealed in the recent past. I was somewhat surprised not to see a discussion of the proposed “right to be forgotten” that has caused so much consternation in the US, but that omission doesn’t affect my evaluation of the book.

Kuner provides a comprehensive and useful overview of data protection laws, both in the EU and elsewhere. The author’s experience in the field, thorough analysis of existing policies, and policy suggestions are of the highest caliber. I recommend Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law without reservation.

 

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 lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Review of Tim’s Vermeer

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Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter, created works that diverged significantly from those of his contemporaries. Though he painted domestic scenes and portraits, his works’ appearance shared more with modern photography than paintings of his era. Where he developed these skills is a mystery — there’s no record of Vermeer’s training, which is very uncommon for artists of the mid-17th century. Normally artists listed their apprenticeships and other engagements to enhance their prestige. His works also stood out through their lack or preparatory sketches on the canvas. How he produced his work is a mystery.

Tim’s Vermeer, a Penn & Teller Film, investigates Vermeer’s process. Penn Jillette and Teller, the taller and shorter halves of Penn & Teller, respectively, have in recent years branched out from their magic show at the Rio in Las Vegas. Their other projects include Penn’s appearances on Celebrity Apprentice and Teller’s well-received direction of Macbeth. The “Tim” of the film’s title is Tim Jenison, a technologist, inventor, and friend of Penn’s for many years. Jenison surged to nerd prominence in the 1980s with products such as DigiView and the iconic Video Toaster. His company, NewTek, produces LightWave 3D, popular modeling software for artists, designers, and engineers.

During a conversation with Penn, Tim casually remarked that he was trying to recreate a Vermeer painting. Tim’s not a painter, but he has an inventive mind, an eye for detail, and an understanding of light from his work as a 3D design software developer. He happened to read British artist  David Hockney’s 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which postulated that Vermeer had used optical aids to produce his work.  Over time, Tim intuited and tested a process that combined camera obscura projection and a series of mirrors to magnify the subject image and compare the subject’s color with that on the canvas. When there is no discernable step at the edge of the comparison mirror, a condition that surely brings joy to professional magicians Penn & Teller, the rendering matches the subject.

The film then describes Tim’s efforts to research the piece he has chosen to recreate, The Music Lesson, and build a full-size physical model of the scene in a San Antonio warehouse. One light-hearted moment comes when Tim and the gang visit London and request permission from the Queen of England to view the original work, which is in the crown’s private collection in Buckingham Palace. Originally denied access, Penn & Teller recorded a rant that could easily have fit into their Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Fortunately, just a portion of this segment played briefly and at very low volume while Penn’s voiceover revealed the Queen had changed her mind and granted Tim a half-hour viewing.

While in England, Tim had the opportunity to speak with several experts, including David Hockney. One shot in Hockney’s studio deliberately exposes the reflection of the director, Teller, and a cameraman in a full-length dressing mirror in Hockney’s studio. It’s a nice touch that reminds us we are watching a mediated depiction of a conversation about a mediated depiction of reality.

Back in San Antonio, Tim’s team constructs the set and he starts painting in earnest. There are many terrific moments in this part of the film, but I won’t spoil them for you. I will say that, at a late stage of the project, Tim’s dedication to detail threatened to turn part of the process from a Seurat-like pointillist rendering into a Sartre-like existentialist nightmare. To his credit, Teller chose not to hype Tim’s obsession on the project. Rather, he lets the viewer empathize with Tim by bringing to mind pursuits they’ve taken to unlikely extremes.

I recommend Tim’s Vermeer without reservation. It’s a compact film, running just 80 minutes, and I plan to buy DVD copies of it as gifts for friends. That said, I did have some small issues with the piece. There were several instances of double exposition, where an interview or voiceover repeated the same information in close proximity. Also, I felt that sped-up sequences where Tim shifted between views of the set’s LightWave 3D model were interesting eye candy but went on a bit long and added nothing to the narrative. I found similar set construction sequences to be effective, so maybe I didn’t see how the computer graphics furthered the story. 

Regardless of these minor complaints, I think Tim’s Vermeer is a terrific documentary that will appeal to anyone who has ever thought “That’s funny…” and followed their observation to its logical, or perhaps illogical, conclusion.

Tim’s Vermeer runs through March 20, 2014 at Cinema 21 in Portland, OR. You can find more information about the film, as well as showtimes and venues in other cities, at its dedicated page on the Sony Classics site.