Thoughts on reading Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence: Intro and Chapter 1

“The principles of analytical design are universal–like mathematics, the laws of Nature, the deep structure of language–and are not tied to any particular language, culture, style, century, gender, or technology of information display.” (Page 10)

Wow. that’s an inauspicious beginning. I’m shocked that Tufte is so myopic not to realize this passage is full of shit. And, more importantly, that it’s a claim he cannot back up. He tries to with what follows (“our examples come from 14 centuries, 16 countries…3 planets, and the innumerable stars.” Not only does he conflate the provenance of the illustrations with the subject (I don’t think any creatures from planets other than earth drew what is in the book), this “evidence” of universality is laughable, and seems like a desperate attempt at legitimacy. Tufte — you’re a smart guy, and you have interesting points to make, and those of us reading the book are likely to agree that appropriate information design is valuable. Why puff it up with this foolishness about “universality”?

Anyway, on to the show…

Page 18 features an geometric illustration by Durer and page 19 a drawing by Mersenne of stringed instruments annotated with numbers and letters. Tufte lauds both as remarkable examples of “mapping.” I can’t figure out the point, or the message, of either. The Durer drawing seems like a geometric abstraction almost for the sake of it. The Mersenne is the most frustrating — a collection of numbers and letters that one assumes have some connection, but is not *evident* from the illustration itself.

Universal, my ass.

It’s not until page 22 and 23 that we get the first excellent example of what Tufte is describing. Chillingly, it’s an illustration of men and women packed shoulder to shoulder on a slave ship.

Tufte’s talk of universality is once again challenged by the diagrammatic deconstructions of Cezanne’s work on pages 24 and 25. After much staring, I finally got the perspective diagrams explained on page 24. Page 25’s “picture boxes” are still a mystery to me.

I’m a fan of Hockney’s attempts at capturing how great classic artists painted pictures of such precision and detail, so I’m a sucker for the reference on page 28.

I will have to take Tufte’s word that the drawings of counter-dancing on pages 32 and 33 helpfully depict how to engage in this activity. After a few drawings in, I’m lost as to which dancer is where, and what they are supposed to be doing.

It actually ended up raising what for me became a significant question — yes, these drawings compel with their aesthetics and diagrammatics, but are they really the best way to communicate this information?

Tufte, you see, presumes the printed page as the tool for explanation. My tendency to question assumptions leads me to wonder — shouldn’t people learn counter-dancing by counter-dancing? Viewing drawings is going to help how? *Maybe* after you’ve taken some lessons and need a referent… But then, these drawings are no longer “universal,” because they require having engaged in the action, to have *embodied* the action, to understand this “evidence.”

This became particularly acute when viewing the admittedly beautiful annotated photographs on 36-39, “How to Ski by the French Method.” The photography and typography are stellar, and make for a fun read.

But did anyone ever learn “how to ski by the French Method” by reading this book?

In the introduction, Tufte asserts that it is difficult “to identify what place or time this book is from,” lauding the timelessness and placeness of his examples. And then on page 43 he shows a picture of his doggies, overlaid with white Gill Sans, and this book very firmly is placed in the mid-2000s (by the typography and style of the image) in Tufte’s backyard.

So, while Tufte makes some good points that images should be mapped in order to provide greater understanding (by, say, juxtaposing photos of planets with the earth to provide scale, or providing rulers in drawings), frankly, it feels like there’s a lot of filler in this first chapter. I hope this isn’t indicative of the book as a whole.

Check Your Irony at the Door

In San Francisco, I know of two totems of kitsch whose power is so great, it renders any attempt at ironic detachment or sarcasm moot. One is the Tonga Room in the Fairmont Hotel — once you see the lightning and rain shower while a mediocre band warbles 80s-era classics, you have no choice but to succumb.

The other is Beach Blanket Babylon, which I saw last week as part of a blogger press corps event. (Which means that, yes, I got to see it free).

Beach Blanket Babylon is a comic musical revue that has been running in North Beach for the last 30 years. The show’s material is continually updated with the times (so we get Dick Cheney shooting people in the face, Brokeback Mountain, and the like).

Most people I know have very little knowledge of the show, and if they do know anything about it, it’s the totally overdone headdresses that performers wear as part of various costumes. Frankly, those headdresses are pretty much worth the price of admission, especially the San Francisco Skyline, which has been updated to include the new de Young.

By it’s nature, the show is a mixed bag. Gag after gag is thrown at the audience. Some of it works, some doesn’t. You have to applaud the show’s producers for their their willingness to create rather involved 5-15 second gags that have nothing to do with anything. It’s almost like a game of word association at times–someone remarks about how they want to find a younger man, the curtain goes up, we see “Demi Moore”, and then “Ashton Kutcher” comes riding out on a tricycle, does a loop of the stage, returns to Demi, the curtain closes, and we move on. It’s remarkably appropriate to the short-attention-span culture we live in, and must be quite costly to put on!

My favorite of these associations was when a performer says “darkness,” the curtain opens up, and we see a PG&E worker, who begins to sing “Hello darkness my old friend…” as a blackout occurs. I only wish BBB had more Bay Area humor. When I last saw it (10 years ago) I remember a fairly involved bit with Da Mayor at the time, Willie Brown. Sadly, Gavin Newsom doesn’t warrant a caricature, though he does get namechecked in a song referencing gay marriage.

Speaking of politics, what doesn’t work is the increasingly dated political humor. Too much time is spent making fun of Theresa Heinz Kerry, which can only be explained by the show’s producers wanting to get as much mileage as possible out of the ketchup bottle that she’s in. Unfortunately, the set piece around that gag feels, well, lame.

It’s also disappointing that they use no music made since, oh, 2000, and the bulk of the tunes are hoary chestnuts from the 60s. Perhaps that appeals to the decidedly boomer crowd that was in attendance (if you removed the blogger press corps from the audience, the average age was probably about 50), but it gives the production a tired feeling. I would think that contemporary pop songs like “Hey Ya” would fit perfectly and provide some freshness.

The fundamental question is, is it worth the price of admission? Well, you do get a *lot* of material, and quite a number of laughs, and even a few wide-eyed open-mouthed stares at the amazing hats, so it’s definitely worth something. Personally, I’d say something in the $45 area (and you can pay up to nearly $80 for some seats some nights). It’s could definitely be part of a fun evening out in North Beach, a perfectly good date, or perhaps something to do with friends in from out of town. You’ll definitely walk out feeling good, and probably humming to yourself the song with which they close…

San Francisco, open your golden gate
You let no stranger wait outside your door.
San Francisco, here is your wandering one
Saying I’ll wander no more.
Other places only make me love you best,
Tell me you’re the heart of all the golden west.
San Francisco, welcome me home again;
I’m coming home to go roaming no more.