Writing

Anecdotes

Further down in the reading pile is an article from Slate titled Does Advertising Really Work?

Every book ever written about marketing will at some point dig up that old, familiar line: “I know half my advertising is wasted—I just don’t know which half.”

The article by Seth Stevenson goes on to discuss What Sticks, by Rex Briggs and Greg Stuart, a pair of marketing researchers who study the advertising industry. Mad Men notwithstanding, I find the topic fascinating as a trained designer (trained meaning someone who learned to make such things) who happily pays Comcast $12.95 a month for the privilege to never hear or see Levitra, Viagra, or Cialis advertisements.

But separately, and as someone who did a lecture last night, I really enjoyed this point about anecdotes:

Why is this anecdote-laden style so popular with business authors, and so successful (to the tune of best-selling books and huge speaking fees)? I think it comes down to two things: 1) Fascinating anecdotes can, just by themselves, make you feel like you’ve really learned something… 2) A skillful anecdote-wielder can trick us into thinking the anecdote is prescriptive. In fact, what’s being sold is success by association. It’s no coincidence that [one such book talks] about the iPod—a recent mega-hit we’re all familiar with—in at least three chapters. It’s tempting to believe that bite-sized anecdotes about how the iPod was conceived, or designed, or marketed will reveal the secret formula for kicking butt with our own projects. Of course, it’s never that simple. An anecdote is a single data point, …

I find the first point interesting in light of the way in which we digest information from the world around us. We’re continually consuming data and then trying to synthesize it to larger meanings. And perhaps anecdotes are a kind of shortcut for this process because they provide something that’s already been digested but still feels substantial because it affords a brief leap in our thinking (and one that seems significant at the time).

Of course, unless you’re a baby bird, you’re better off digesting on your own.

As a side note, I went looking for an image to illustrate this blob of text, and was amused to find that the results from a google image search for “anecdote” consisted almost entirely of cartoons. Which reminds me of a story…

Saturday, December 13, 2008 | speaky  
Book

Visualizing Data Book CoverVisualizing Data is my book about computational information design. It covers the path from raw data to how we understand it, detailing how to begin with a set of numbers and produce images or software that lets you view and interact with information. Unlike nearly all books in this field, it is a hands-on guide intended for people who want to learn how to actually build a data visualization.

The text was published by O’Reilly in December 2007 and can be found at Amazon and elsewhere. Amazon also has an edition for the Kindle, for people who aren’t into the dead tree thing. (Proceeds from Amazon links found on this page are used to pay my web hosting bill.)

Examples for the book can be found here.

The book covers ideas found in my Ph.D. dissertation, which is basis for Chapter 1. The next chapter is an extremely brief introduction to Processing, which is used for the examples. Next is (chapter 3) is a simple mapping project to place data points on a map of the United States. Of course, the idea is not that lots of people want to visualize data for each of 50 states. Instead, it’s a jumping off point for learning how to lay out data spatially.

The chapters that follow cover six more projects, such as salary vs. performance (Chapter 5), zipdecode (Chapter 6), followed by more advanced topics dealing with trees, treemaps, hierarchies, and recursion (Chapter 7), plus graphs and networks (Chapter 8).

This site is used for follow-up code and writing about related topics.

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