Understanding USA
February 16, 2002 3:29 PM   Subscribe

Understanding USA is (almost) worthy of Tufte (presentation wise), but best of all you can download the whole book in PDF format. As a non-American I ask, does this help us understand the USA or is it all just statistics? (more inside).
posted by Zootoon (33 comments total)
This was mentioned once in a thread about a year ago but I thought that after all the debate on America recently it might be interesting if Americans and others thought this was a good place to read up. The PDFs are big but worth it and they whole thing is there in gifs as well; if you don't know where to start Chapter 13 is particularly interesting.
posted by Zootoon at 3:34 PM on February 16, 2002

As an American, I can tell you, stats or no stats--even I have a difficult time understanding America and its inhabitants.

I only know that the vast majority of us are plodding along hoping for a few moments of contenment and maybe even a little joy between working for jerks, paying our mortgages, utilites, taxes, and being ashamed of our politicians and celebrities (the folks that people more readily identify with America). But all told, most of us are just too damned tired after sixty to ninety hour work weeks to plaster on some sappy grin and appeal to the world's compassion for a bunch of working stiffs who've got better dreams in mind than getting kicked in the teeth on a continual basis for not being perfect.

But I'm not bitter about it--that'd be too human.
posted by Tiger_Lily at 4:02 PM on February 16, 2002

we rule.....that should be easy to get, right?
posted by billybob at 4:12 PM on February 16, 2002

Maybe I didn't express myself too well. I'm not asking Americans to justify themselves or appeal to the world's compassion. All I'm asking for is some opinions on a bunch of stats and if they're reasonably put together. As for what you say the majority of you are doing, sounds like the rest of us. If there were a site like this on where I live, I'd like someone to ask my opinion on what I think of it, just to have a second opinion. My intent is not to start one of those debates I feel you may have thought I was provoking.
posted by Zootoon at 4:13 PM on February 16, 2002

As a wise man once said- "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."
posted by jonmc at 4:20 PM on February 16, 2002

"There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."
Yeah but it's hard to do without them. Statistics control everything from how much you pay in tax to what programs get axed on TV. Given that they're fraught with problems, what do people think of the statistics in my link (I've refrained from putting that in capital letters). Any opinions on the site out there?
posted by Zootoon at 4:27 PM on February 16, 2002

How's this? The flash intro is annoying, the idea of information architecture is a good one, (and it was good back when IBM and Oracle innovated it). The stats were reasonably (and sometimes marvelously) put together. No, this won't give anyone a greater understanding of the US, simply because all that info still has to be put through the subjective "people filters" that we all seem to have. The "grading" is based on biases of the authors, and hence of little use except to those who have a previously defined agenda. The type on the website is too small unless you download and print the document, and that's wasteful, contributing to another poor grade for this country.

All in all, I think this a wonderful if often offensive resource for US citizens. The rest of the world should keep in mind that:

These opinions are the authors' alone and should not be constued as affiliated with ...
posted by Wulfgar! at 4:29 PM on February 16, 2002

Apologies, that should read "construed".
posted by Wulfgar! at 4:30 PM on February 16, 2002

What I've noticed most about America, and it isn't really revealed in statistics, is just how different one state can feel from the other. They don't have to be all that far apart geographically. You can fart in Providence, Rhode Island and it will tousle hair in Boston, Massachusetts, but the two places almost feel like completely different countries, particularly in terms of the ethnic makeup and expectations of it's inhabitants.

And that's just civilization, never mind the wackjob states like Texas.
posted by dong_resin at 4:48 PM on February 16, 2002

Well, Zootoon, since you asked, I dunno that they reveal anything really, I looked at the book about a year ago at my local bookstore and it didn't illuminate anything. It's been my experience that those who create grand surveys such as these usually start out with a conclusion in mind and then go out and find facts that support that conclusion, which is why I am disinclined to trust them.
Simple quantitative ansewrs only tell you so much, the authors of this survey would've done better to say, hang out and listen to the cacophony on MeFi, or better yet just ask open-ended questions of random people.
You wanna know what the average American(a nonexistent creature if you ask me but that's a whloe other conversation) thinks about whatever, go ask him;strike up a coversation with the countergirl at 7-11 about foreign policy, ask the guy who makes your coffee his opinion on the state of the world. I do it all the time, the answers will suprise you and you might make a new freind in the bargain.
posted by jonmc at 4:53 PM on February 16, 2002

I take your point jonmc but maybe I should have pointed out that I'm a non-American not living in the USA, otherwise that would have been sound advice. If what dong_resin says is true, talking to the countergirl or the guy who makes your coffee will give you a very different feedback depending on what state you're in, as is the case where I live (Spain). As for taking MeFi as representative, I have the same problem as taking any group as representative, are the people who speak up representative of the whole? there are a lot that never say anything, are they spoken for by those who do, I guess we'll never know. It's like people who ring radio stations with their opinion, even if there were thousands, is there a certain type more likely to ring? I know this is hard to resolve, but I find it everywhere I go, especially as I personally always refuse to take part in polls. If it's true the authors of this particular book had a hidden agenda, what do you think it was? How can this be avoided?
posted by Zootoon at 5:08 PM on February 16, 2002

Understanding USA is (almost) worthy of Tufte (presentation wise)...
Yes, if Tufte were on crack and under deadline for USA Today.
The information design on this site (and bear in mind that it's taken from the original book) gets in the way of the information it's trying to convey.
posted by mikemonteiro at 5:13 PM on February 16, 2002

Apologies in advance to those who find this off-topic: these graphs are kinda pretty as art objects, but they're totally unreadable as information. Tufte would not approve, methinks.

This, for example. All of the information in the whole chart is contained in the labels; the rest is just swoopy colors and shapes that have no apparent connection with the data they're supposed to represent.

This is even worse: there are four different datasets being graphed here, which don't have any correlation to each other, yet they're all shown lumped together in an odd bloopy shape that contributes nothing to the readability of the data.

Sometimes an unusual data presentation is helpful -- one of Tufte's books (this one, I think) cites a graph which shows six different axes of information about Napoleon's march on Moscow -- all in a flat, black-and-white grid. It's an odd format, but all of the various types of data are immediately readable. But in these cases I'd be much more convinced by a set of regular old bar graphs.
posted by ook at 5:14 PM on February 16, 2002

And I'm beaten to the punch once again.
posted by ook at 5:16 PM on February 16, 2002

is there a certain type more likely to ring?

Yeah, the same type who's likely to answer a survey. Which is why you gotta do the asking. And the key word is asking not debating or confronting. Just ask, listen and try to find the genuine place where their deeply held beliefs come from.
Despite what my buddy dong_resin says, people are people more or less and are dying for someone to listen to them. I doubt Spain is that much different from the US, deep down.

As Nietszche(of all people) said- "If you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire."
posted by jonmc at 5:16 PM on February 16, 2002

I give up now
posted by ook at 5:17 PM on February 16, 2002

ook - please don't give up. Apparently, on Metafilter, something has to be said 15 times before anyone else gets the clue.
posted by Wulfgar! at 5:27 PM on February 16, 2002

At what point do we start bashing Tufte because design mavens worship him overmuch?
posted by gimonca at 5:33 PM on February 16, 2002

Wulfgar: I was giving up because I screwed up the link -- but I'm glad my 1/15th of an opinion made a difference to ya.
posted by ook at 5:36 PM on February 16, 2002

hell, yeah...what mike said...er...what ook said ;-)
posted by kilroy at 5:48 PM on February 16, 2002

What I've noticed most about America, and it isn't really revealed in statistics, is just how different one state can feel from the other

I've seen the exact opposite in my experience. The accents are a little different, but all-in-all you can move from coast to coast without skipping a beat - of course, I can't say this about "the vast middle" (flyover states).
posted by owillis at 6:01 PM on February 16, 2002

As it always was; thinking for own mind. ON YOUR OWN.
Finding reasoning out for yourself...on your own. It seems natural, since we are all naturally curious. Right?
posted by Espoo2 at 6:02 PM on February 16, 2002

At least that is what it breaks down to in my opinion
posted by Espoo2 at 6:04 PM on February 16, 2002

And that's just civilization, never mind the wackjob states like Texas.

How could you, dong? We got cilvilization down here. We just hide it well.
posted by bjgeiger at 6:05 PM on February 16, 2002

I think the first thing any viewer of this site needs to understand, particularly a non-American, is that it was created as much to plug Richard Saul Wurman's unusual style of "information architecture" (and the book, of course) as it was to actually get across any meaningful sense of what the US is all about. On the first point, I will also back up ook with my 1/15th: Wurman had some brilliant ideas in his time about the presentation of information on paper (as well as on how people should deal with the ever-increasing amounts of information made available to them) but the arrival of the web really did a number on his brain, and he's sort of devolved into the anti-Jakob, making all sorts of indecipherable creations such as these.

But that's neither here nor there in terms of Zootoon's original question: Does this actually tell you anything worthwhile about America and Americans? I have to say no, it doesn't, unless you're a statistical anthropologist arriving fresh off the rocket from Mars. It certainly tells you stuff, bombarding you with hundreds of semi-interesting little data points and factoids, but they are presented with no context whatsoever, and without context they're pretty meaningless ... in fact, they're open to whatever interpretation the viewer's own prejudices want to read into them. Just pulling one tidbit out at random: The bottom left of This page reads: "The cost of smart bombs used by the US during the first day of the 1991 Gulf War would pay for maintaining a combat batallion for a full year." Okay, fine, but so what, really? Someone totally unfamiliar with America could infer any number of things from this: "The US military has too much money." "The US military is really into technology." "They used more weapons on Iraq than they needed to." "Military personnel need to be paid higher wages." "Americans must value their human soliders very much to spend that much money to keep them from having to be cannon fodder." Any of these points may be valid. Perhaps none of them are valid. But you'll never know from this chart. It's just a random Info McNugget, ready for you to chew on and digest for about two seconds before moving onto the next one because they're each so small, generic and unsatisfying.

If you're really into learning more about the United States in terms of pure numbers, you're infinitely better off getting a copy of the Statistical Abstract of the United States. It's a giant, 1300-page-plus, 3-pound book published by the federal government every year, that will truly drown you in numbers, with no frills. (Even better, just read it online.) But if you really want to understand Americans, well ... that's what we're here for, eh?
posted by aaron at 6:09 PM on February 16, 2002

All those who wish to understand what's wrong with surveys are here by pointed here.
posted by jonmc at 6:18 PM on February 16, 2002

Aaron got me interested enough to start searching around for more info on Richard Wurman (I'd only ever heard of him as an organizer of conferences I can't afford to attend -- and I stumbled across something too fun to ignore:
RSW: Well, I think [Edward Tufte is] completely wrong. And he's completely wrong because of who he is... He doesn't have any ideas about graphics and what's going to happen in the future.... I think, since he doesn't have creative ideas about the future, he can't see how there will be amazing information displayed on the Internet, done by very creative people, in the very near future.
Wurman then goes on to admit, basically, that he doesn't really know what he's doing, design-wise:
Are we stumbling around now doing things? You bet. Because we're finding our way. we're just getting over the point where we're just putting diagrams on a screen. We're not taking the appropriate way of using dynamic information. We're using it to show off that we can spin things, and we're showing off things because we can do it, and everybody is bragging to one another about some cute program.
Yes, I'm slanting the argument by trimming out every other sentence of the interview, but it's more fun that way. Besides, the interview is 3 years old, and the most innovative part of this new design is still that, wow, you can spin things. And all those odd bloopy shapes fit together into a great big bloopy shape. That's using the medium, eh?

Maybe it's just as well I never went to any of those conferences...
posted by ook at 9:48 PM on February 16, 2002

Zootoon- Raw numbers can never capture the dynamic of any society. Let me extend an invitation. Come visit us Americans if you can. I think you'll like what you find.
posted by scottymac at 9:53 PM on February 16, 2002

I think you'll like what you find

Hell, even if you don't - just buy our crap and become our cultural slaves. Everyone else is doing it!
posted by owillis at 11:26 PM on February 16, 2002

I hate graphic designers (please note: graphic design is one of the main components of my own job).

Creative types who feel that Tufte cramps their style are like web designers who shit on Jakob Nielsen. These folks are laying out simple rules to good practices - rules and work - rules that, when followed, generally make things better.

Note that I said generally. Both Nielsen and Tufte would be quick to admit that rules are meant to be broken, but they should be broken by intelligent people for good reasons.

When I came across the Understanding USA graphics last year, my reaction was something like "hmmm, I bet there's some interesting data hidden behind the totally xTreme decoration". Yeah, decoration.

It reminds me of Wired Magazine's infoporn (though Wired does a much better job).

Maybe the idea is to make look more interesting and attractive? I would much rather hang Tuft's favourite chart, Minard's Napoleon's March on my wall than this ridiculous thing. Not only is Tufte's work more compelling in that it solves interesting problems - it just plain looks better.
posted by stevengarrity at 7:02 AM on February 17, 2002

We can only pray that all the people his conferences taught are now serving cappucinos.
posted by dhartung at 10:20 AM on February 17, 2002

(and it was good back when IBM and Oracle innovated it)

IBM? Oracle? Cites, please. (Oracle?)

(Note: Wurman's phrase "information architect" has little to do with "information architecture" as it is used in current web lingo, and comes from an entirely different field of endeavor--the graphic representation of information. The similarity between the two phrases is an unfortunate coincidence, and Wurman's use predates Morville and Rosenfeld's by years.)

I'm no fan of Wurman (he is fan of himself enough for ten ordinary people), but I think he has a point about Tufte. Tufte is a decent critic, but not especially useful as a guide. His "rules" to good practice are either so obvious as to be uninteresting, or too vague to actually be translated into practice. Wurman, for all his many faults, at least generates debate and supports interesting design ideas (unlike the Mandarin of New Haven, who is basically a professional Disapprover these days). Love Wurman or hate him, anyone who hasn't heard of his work really isn't up to speed on the discussion.

I agree with Aaron's assessment of Wurman's importance (his Access guides were a genuinely innovative approach to a hard problem, that of squeezing a lot of information into a small space), and of his and the web's unfortunate mutual impact on each other (see also Nathan Shedroff). Nevertheless, a lot of the griping on this thread just feels like groupthink to me--"too fun to ignore" because we all just must agree that Tufte's info-puritanism is the veriest shit, and anyone who dares dissent or attempts to move on from it must be ridiculed. A lot of Wurman-influenced work is ridiculous, at least on first inspection, but as you spend some time with it you often find that there are interesting ideas aborning.

PS: I am SO TIRED of "Tufte's favorite chart"! Having that on your wall is like having a poster for some obscure indie band on your wall--commercialized historical cred with no need to actually develop the historical erudition to support it. Best information graphic of all time? Try the periodic table, or come up with an candidate of your own.

PPS: Can you tell that Tufte-worship is kind of a pet peeve of mine? ;)
posted by rodii at 7:49 PM on February 17, 2002

anyone who hasn't heard of his work really isn't up to speed on the discussion

Ouch. I have a sneaking suspicion that one was for me. :)

Points taken, especially re Tufte-worship. ([Any-name-here]-worship would be a problem, of course. I feel the same way about Jakob Nielsen as you seem to about Tufte, even though I agree with a lot of what Nielsen has to say... he's equally boring and old-fashioned, and maddeningly right much of the time.)

But as the one who started the Wurman-bashing in the first place, I gotta say: I looked at the graphics in this site, and was bewildered. I look at the graphics in Tufte's books, and understand them, without careful inspection -- which is the point of information design, no?

My poking fun at the graphs in this website was based on the fact that, on any terms, they're failures. They suck. They don't do what they're supposed to do.

My poking fun at the interview was partly because his relentless self-love ticked me off, and because of his apparent belief that old automagically equals bad... he didn't seem to have anything new and worthwhile to offer back then other than a desire to look for something new and worthwhile -- stated as much in the interview -- and based on this work he doesn't now, either.

Which is great, sure. I'm not saying we shouldn't try new ideas, I'm just saying maybe we shouldn't jettison the old ones that worked while we're at it -- which seems to be pretty much what Wurman is up to.
posted by ook at 12:05 PM on February 19, 2002

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