Conveying multiple realities in research and journalism

A recent Boston Globe editorial covers the issue of multiple, seemingly (if obviously) contradictory statements that come from complex research, in this case around the oil spill:

Last week, Woods Hole researchers reported a 22-mile-long underwater plume that they mapped out in the Gulf of Mexico in June — a finding indicating that much more oil may lie deep underwater and be degrading so slowly that it might affect the ecosystem for some time. Also last week, University of Georgia researchers estimated up to 80 percent of the spill may still be at large, with University of South Florida researchers finding poisoned plankton between 900 feet and 3,300 feet deep. This differed from the Aug. 4 proclamation by Administrator Jane Lubchenco of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that three-quarters of the oil was “completely gone’’ or dispersed and the remaining quarter was “degrading rapidly.’’

But then comes the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which this week said a previously unclassified species of microbes is wolfing down the oil with amazing speed. This means that all the scientists could be right, with massive plumes being decimated these past two months by an unexpected cleanup crew from the deep.

This is often the case for anything remotely complex: the opacity of the research process to the general public, the communication skills of various institutions, the differing perspective between what the public cares about (whose fault is it? how bad is it?) versus the interests of the researchers, and so on.

It’s a basic issue around communicating complex ideas, and therefore affects visualization too — it’s rare that there’s a single answer.


On a more subjective note, I don’t know if I agree with the premise of the editorial is that it’s on the government to sort out the mess for the public. It’s certainly a role of the government, though the sniping at the Obama administration makes the editorial writer sound one who is equally likely to bemoan government spending, size, etc. But I could write an equally (perhaps more) compelling editorial making the point that it’s actually the role of newspapers like the Globe to sort out newsworthy issues that concern the public. But sadly, the Globe, or at least the front page of boston.com, has been overly obsessed with more click-ready topics like the Craigslist killer (or any other rapist, murderer, or stomach-turning story involving children du jour) and playing “gotcha” with spending and taxes for universities and public officials. What a bunch of ghouls.

(Thanks to my mother-in-law for the article link.)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010 | government, news, reading, science  

“There’s a movie in there, but it’s a very unusual movie.”

how about some handsome with that?On the heels of today’s posting of the updated Salary vs. Performance piece comes word in the New York Times that a film version of Moneyball has been shelved:

Just days before shooting was to begin, Sony Pictures pulled the plug on “Moneyball,” a major film project starring Brad Pitt and being directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Yesterday I found it far more unsettling that such a movie would be made period, but today I’m oddly curious about how they might pull it off:

What baseball saw as accurate, Sony executives saw as being too much a documentary. Mr. Soderbergh, for instance, planned to film interviews with some of the people who were connected to the film’s story.

I guess we’ll never know, since other studios also passed on the project, but that’s probably a good thing.

As an aside, I’m in the midst of reading Liar’s Poker (another by Moneyball author Michael Lewis) and again find myself amused by his ability as a storyteller: he reminds me of a friend who can take the most banal event and turn it into the most peculiar and hilarious story you’ve ever heard.

Thursday, July 2, 2009 | movies, reading, salaryper  

On the Marionette Theatre

I happened across On the Marionette Theatre by Heinrich von Kleist while reading the Wikipedia entry on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Pullman had cited it as one of three influences, and it being the shortest of the three, I gave it a shot (naturally, due to my apparent “young adult” reading level that found me reading his trilogy in the first place).

The story begins with the writer having a chance meeting with a friend, and inquiring about his apparent interest in puppet theater. As the story moves on:

“And what is the advantage your puppets would have over living dancers?”

“The advantage? First of all a negative one, my friend: it would never be guilty of affectation. For affectation is seen, as you know, when the soul, or moving force, appears at some point other than the centre of gravity of the movement. Because the operator controls with his wire or thread only this centre, the attached limbs are just what they should be.… lifeless, pure pendulums, governed only by the law of gravity. This is an excellent quality. You’ll look for it in vain in most of our dancers.”

The remainder is a wonderful parable of vanity and grace.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009 | reading  

What has driven women out of Computer Science?

1116-sbn-webdigi-crop.gifCasey yesterday noted this article from the New York Times on the declining number of women who are pursuing computer science degrees. Declining as in “wow, weren’t the numbers too low already?” From the article’s introduction:

ELLEN SPERTUS, a graduate student at M.I.T., wondered why the computer camp she had attended as a girl had a boy-girl ratio of six to one. And why were only 20 percent of computer science undergraduates at M.I.T. female? She published a 124-page paper, “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?”, that catalogued different cultural biases that discouraged girls and women from pursuing a career in the field. The year was 1991.

Computer science has changed considerably since then. Now, there are even fewer women entering the field. Why this is so remains a matter of dispute.

The article goes on to explain that even though there is far better gender parity (since 1991) when looking at roles in technical fields, computer science still stands alone in moving backwards.

The text also covers some of the “do it with gaming!” nonsense. As someone who became interested in programming because I didn’t like games, I’ve never understood why gaming was pushed as a cure-all for disinterest in programming:

Such students who choose not to pursue their interest may have been introduced to computer science too late. The younger, the better, Ms. Margolis says. Games would offer considerable promise, except that they have been tried and have failed to have an effect on steeply declining female enrollment.

But I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment with regard to age. I know of two all-girls schools (Miss Porter’s in Connecticut and Nightingale-Bamford in New York) who have used Processing in courses with high school and middle school students, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. Let’s hope there are more.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 | cs, gender, reading  

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.