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December 2016

Edward Tufte on Data, Analysis, & Truth

Edward Tufte is a leading expert in the data analysis and data visualization space. His books are classics and required reading for anyone interested in understanding how best to display quantitative information. I read his books just after I left Apple in 2003 to become a college professor in Japan. His books are foundational. I've talked about Tufte in my own books and on this website going back to at least this post in 2005. I have not seen him speak recently, so I was happy to see this 50-minute presentation by Dr. Tufte which took place at the Microsoft Machine Learning & Data Science Summit 2016 held this past September. Microsoft's David Smith introduced Dr. Tufte at the 2:30 mark.


Video and transcript also available on the Microsoft website.

Highlights
In his talk, Tufte warns against confirmation bias and massaging the data to arrive at findings that are desirable or somehow in your interest. He paraphrases one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous lines: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts." This reminded me of the old Darrell Huff chestnut from How to Lie With Statistics (1954): “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”

You want to generate your findings from the data not from the analysis, Tufte says. To do this he recommends specifying your analysis first before you collect the data. "This is to avoid all the generating findings just by analysis, not out of the data." Tufte stressed the importance of "...full pre-specification of the analysis so they can't over search the data, so they can't run a million models and publish one. I think this is the future of confirmatory data analysis."

Exploratory and replication
"We should be mucking around in our data to find out what's going on. We can learn from it. We can run it through powerful exploratory things. We can run it like a map through millennial time and look it over and say, that look interesting....and what this means, though, this kind of searching, is that you must have an honest replication of the results of the search. To go back on innocent data, maybe somebody 500 miles away does it. Maybe that's better, independent replication of the search results to distinguish now between noise and signal."

"It is impossible for any normal human being to stare at a spreadsheet and look for contradictions, and problems." This is where data forensics comes in. Tufte recommends the Quartz Guide to Bad Data at GitHub.

Scattering the eye and mind, producing vague anxiety & clutter
At the end of his talk, Tufte said something very wise. Something simple as can be, but it was one of the most important things he said in his talk. After talking about the need for us to learn about the entire process of data and analysis and to go out in the field and watch directly how original measurements are made, Tufte said this:

"In doing creative work do not start your day with addictive time-vampires such as The New York Times, email, and Twitter. All scatter the eye, and mind, produce diverting vague anxiety, clutter short-term memory. Instead, begin with your work. Many creative workers have independently discovered this principle." I completely agree with this.

And finally this bit of wisdom concerning data analysis and thinking in general. The most powerful question you can ask yourself, and of others is: "How do I know that? How do you know that? How do they know that?"

These books by Dr. Tufte —especially The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Visual Explanations, and Envisioning Information — are ones you want on your bookshelf. They are beautifully designed and well made. Over the years I have come back to these books often. Of course, the examples are dated, but the principles are the same and the examples hold up well and you can easily apply the concepts to modern problems. And they are just beautiful, smart books.

 

 


2 Great Visual Storytelling Books for Children

There is loads of evidence that reading to children at bedtime is not only good for their emotional well being, it also has long-term benefits for their cognitive development. We have a 6-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. Since they were babies they have been exposed to books. Bedtime stories are one of the great joys of parenting and is a nightly ritual for us. As it is the Christmas season, I thought I would recommend two books here that do a great job of presenting their material in an engaging, visual way.

Before-christmasThe first is the classic The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore. There are many editions of this classic tale, but based on the amazing and numerous reviews on Amazon, I purchased Robert Sabuda's The Night Before Christmas Pop-up last year in time for Christmas.The pop-up art is amazing and imaginative. I was not sure at first that I would want a pop-up book for story time, but the great thing about the 3-D aspect of it is that the kids are always touching the paper and playing with the tabs and strings as the story progresses. They use their imagination to believe now that the story is about them and their house. In the final two-page spread, for example, a snow-covered town pops up with Santa flying over the houses. My son will say something like "here is our house and this is our bed room window." My daughter would then comment "here's grandma's house and here's our school across the bridge." I read each page, but we spend more time on questions and adding to the narrative before I move on to the next spread. It's a well-made book, but you need to be a bit careful with it, especially with infants. Still, if you are just a little careful, the pop-ups should keep working long after the kids are grown.

Popup1My 4-year-old son pulls tab to have Santa and his reindeer fly above the snow covered village.

Popup2
My 6-year-old daughter opens the page which reveals the eight reindeer and Santa scurrying down the chimney.

Starwars-readerThe second recommendation is not a pop-up, but rather a series of visual books that come with an audio reader than the child can control. My wife had a business trip to New York City about a year ago and brought back The Disney Star Wars Me Reader. It was an instant hit.The box comes with eight short illustrated books and a durable plastic electronic reader. Of course, I can read the book as my children follow along, but they actually prefer that I hold the book for them as they press the buttons on the reader to go through the story page by page. The electronic reader is intuitive to figure out for the child. We got this Star Wars set over a year ago when my son was 3-years old and he knew how to navigate the analog menus after 1-2 minutes of playing around. The narrator's English is extremely clear and easy to understand and I believe this has helped with their English pronunciation. The kids don't just listen but repeat phrases from the book — "It's a trap!" As we live in Japan, I am about the only person they interact with in English, so tools like this were surprisingly useful. My son is the Star Wars nerd (as am I), so I think we'll get a different Me Reader for my daughter for Christmas such as the Frozen Me Reader.

The Star Wars Radio Youtube channel has a preview of one of the books along with the audio for each book. This should give you a feel for what they are like. We've already gotten a lot of mileage of these books.

 May The Force Be With You.