Nobody has a cuter toad than this

This little guy was under a pile of brush in the yard that I cleaned up today.


No toads were harmed in the making of this blog.

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Portraying complexity

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Everything simple is false. Everything which is complex is unusable.
-Paul Valéry, Notre destin et les lettres, 1937

One of the reasons I like Chicago’s channel 9 for weather is because their graphics impart a huge amount of information with one glance.

A different kind of graphic, this one about the Afghan military situation, is bouncing around the internet.  Some see it as a way of representing the complexity of interconnected political, economic, and ethnic forces. Others say it’s a bowl of spaghetti and an example of how powerpoint is ruining the military.  When the general in charge of Afghanistan was shown the slide, he said, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

Here is the slide. I kind of like it.  It is at least on par with the map of London’s underground.

This brings up the question of whether powerpoint is dumbing down governmental decision making. When NASA investigated the crash of the Columbia space shuttle, its report argued that one of the underlying causes of the disaster was the practice of engineers presenting complex information to management with PowerPoint slides instead of 5-page written technical reports.  Edward Tufte, author of Visual Explanations (which the Boston Globe calls “a visual Strunk and White”– foreshadowing my later reservations about Tufte)  concludes:

Microsoft’s ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension. For example, the low resolution of a PowerPoint slide means that it usually contains only about 40 words, or barely eight seconds of reading. PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a ”faux analytical” technique, Tufte wrote, that dodges the speaker’s responsibility to tie his information together. And perhaps worst of all is how PowerPoint renders charts. Charts in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal contain up to 120 elements on average, allowing readers to compare large groupings of data. But, as Tufte found, PowerPoint users typically produce charts with only 12 elements. Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

Well I remember Colin Powell’s powerpoint presentation to the UN justifying the invasion of Iraq.

For those with short memories about NASA disasters, the Columbia shuttle disaster was caused by the damage to the wing by a piece of foam that detached during take-off; that disaster was in 2003.

There was also an earlier disaster, the Challenger disaster in January of 1986 that was caused by O-rings that failed when the launch was done in unusually cold weather. That disaster has been much studied as a case in maladministration. As it turns out, Tufte had his finger in analysis of that disaster too, only he blamed the engineers for not presenting their data clearly enough. But the engineers of Morton Thiokol did warn against launching Challenger. It was the managers who, under pressure from NASA, made the decision to launch anyhow, in a case that has since become the classic model of groupthink.  While the description of the powerpoints involved in the Columbia disaster are interesting, Tufte’s analysis of the Challenger disaster appears to be faulty and was not well received.

And Strunk and White poke their heads out once again in the comments of this description of one of Tufte’s seminars, “I agree without reservation: Strunk and White should be read annually. And for those in the teaching business, information transfer requires consulting Tufte, all four volumes, until his messages are welded into performance.” By now I am doubly convinced to read Tufte with caution.

The description was worth reading, though, just to discover Tufte’s example of  “the best chart the world has ever seen”:  a 1869 drawing by Charles Joseph Minard of  Napoleon’s March to Moscow.  The chart begins on the left-hand side, the tan line representing an army of 442,000 en route to Moscow. The black line, moving in the opposite direction, is the retreat. (click to enlarge)

Another example is John Snow’s 1854 London cholera map.

The map showed cholera deaths as black bars, all surrounding a neighborhood pump that was the source of the water-born cholera epidemic.  There is an excellent ten-minute talk about the map in the context of cities and public health.

Tufte’s sculpture is also worth looking at.

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Hebrew resources

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Seven miles

Supposedly, in Illinois you can add one day to the growing season for every 7 miles south traveled.  So if you travel south 100 miles, you should see plants that are 2 weeks ahead of your own area. Of course we have had cold rainy weather, but still, my hostas are only an inch or two out of the ground. Will they look like these in another 2 weeks?  And what about the flowers?

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On Kubler-Ross

Anyone who tries to find out about coping with terminal illness will very quickly discover Kübler-Ross and the five stages of grief.  The 1969 book On Death and Dying describes the process by which people deal with being diagnosed with a terminal illness, but the ideas were so simple and so powerful that they were quickly applied to other types of losses.

A bit of nonsense has grown up around Kübler-Ross as well.  The original book, based on observations of actual dying patients, cautioned that not everyone experiences all five stages, but at least two are always present. In spite of that you can google up websites (including the Slate obit, but not the one in the Guardian) that exclaim with horror that not everyone experiences all the stages in the exact order.  You would think they would read the book, or even observe dying people for themselves, before writing something so grossly inaccurate.

In spite of the nonsense, the Kübler-Ross contribution to thanatology and the Hospice movement has been huge. What a gift for someone caring for a terminally ill family member to know that the roller coaster of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance detailed in the book that they may see being played out in the life and death of their own loved one is not anything personal but is a predictable part of coming to terms with the illness.

Here’s a taste of the muddled Slate obit:

Are we in denial if we don’t watch every terrorist beheading video or gaze repeatedly at the descent of those who jumped from the World Trade Center towers? Come to think of it, aren’t Kübler-Ross’ five stages arbitrary in their order? Wouldn’t it be more fun to go out angry or better, bargaining, than depressed and accepting? Or maybe with a different “stage” of our own devising. Laughter in the dark? I’m sure Kübler-Ross was well intentioned and serious-minded before she commodified and quantified her caring into a D ‘n’ D industry. And I understand why people will turn to her books in time of grief when consolation of any sort is the first priority. Millions of the dead and dying have reason to be grateful to her for raising their standard of care. I just feel we who are about to die (well, sooner or later) deserve better than this treacly simulacrum of pseudo-science to guide us.

Well, obviously Kübler-Ross wasn’t writing about terrorists and the World Trade Center back in 1969, so even for those who haven’t read On Death and Dying, as the writer so obviously has not, it’s easy enough to identify the straw-man quality of that terribly, terribly unkind (and unbalanced) summation of one person’s life.

But what about it, do we deserve better?  Sadly, no one, but no one has come up with anything better than Kübler-Ross.  Not the New York Times, not Mayo Clinic. And in spite of the years I spent working with hospice, I’m not ready to write one either. Instead let me offer Johnny Cash’s final album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave released posthumously, and recorded during the last two years of the singer’s degenerative illness.










1 Ain’t No Grave
2 Redemption Day
3 For the Good Times
4 I Corinthians 15:55
5 Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound
6 A Satisfied Mind
7 I Don’t Hurt Anymore
8 Cool Water
9 Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream
10 Aloha Oe

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Spring color

I’m trying to get my 18-year-old car ready to travel as soon as I can get off my weekend class treadmill, but here are a couple quick photos of spring color, taken today when I went across the street to mow the lawn again. I caught a glimpse of both a bumble bee and a honey bee, both of them camera shy, but no sign yet of my favorite mosquito-eating creatures, Toad and Snake.

Green fly.

Red tulips.

Violet violets.

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What your eleven-year-old is doing online

The other day one of the neighbor kids asked to use my netbook to check his social networking website.  No problem.   But he forgot to sign out, and mwahahaha, also forgot the saying about never trusting anyone over 30. So here is what the kids in the neighborhood do online.

This particular website, and I’m going to keep everything anonymous here, offers “gifts”, “trophies”, and “points”. These kids have point totals next to their names. They also get to dress themselves and decorate a “room”, which can also be an outdoor scene.  Female avatars also get a choice of three different chest sizes; the default is the smallest size.

Then they get a wall where their friends can leave messages.  Here are some typical messages, with identifying information blocked out.

The girls seem to like names that identify them as attractive or “hot”; also that incorporate the word “pie”. The boys mostly use their real names, some with numbers. They know each other in real life. They’re supposed to be at least thirteen to use the site, but just last week I was at a birthday party where one of them turned eleven.

The obvious thing about these particular comments is how the little dears seem to know there is a nanny filter and how to get around it. They type “byches” and “my nygga”, but do they know what those words mean?  I hear these same kids playing in the yard when I’m gardening and they use the n-word and the b-word but rarely.  Most of the time they’re worried about who’s “gay” and whose turn it is to be “gay”, much in the same way we talked about  “girl fleas”, “boy fleas”, and who has “fleas” (that you could catch by touching someone in a sort of tag game) at that age, although unlike the boys of my childhood, these boys seem to be concerned about whether girls like them, also they do play with girls). But the “byches” in this case seem to be male (and yes, there are real gangs in the neighborhood), and the child being addressed as “bro” and “my nygga” is not African-American. I don’t know if what I’m seeing is bigotry and homophobia or if I’m catching a glimpse of a Brave New World of future language change.

And of course I couldn’t resist the chance to play with the avatars and create a Mini Me.  Here is Nijma, aged 13.

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