It’s amazing what we learn to walk past in big-city (North) America.
Almost fifteen years ago, we took my daughters on a Toronto vacation. They were very young. The city I wanted to show them was the beautiful, somewhat imaginary place I remember from my own youth. In my mind’s eye, Toronto remains a squeaky-clean and safe counterpoint to gritty Rochester, Buffalo, and New York. This image was never fully accurate, even decades ago. Certainly today, Toronto faces every American urban challenge that doesn’t involve handguns.
We walked out of our fancy hotel for sightseeing—and immediately encountered a homeless man sprawled on the sidewalk. He was sitting on a dirty blanket. He was wet and cold on a blustery morning. With the stabbing innocence of a six-year-old, my daughter asked: “Who will help that man?” I stammered some crummy answer I’ve now forgotten. We were out-of-towners. He was right outside a major hotel in plain view of police and others. We didn’t know his story. We had places to go, sights to see. What else could we really do? We moved on.
Just last week, I attended the American Society of Criminology in San Francisco. I love that city, perhaps the most beautiful and prosperous urban jewel America has to offer. It also has an amazing number of homeless people, many of whom lay under blankets right outside the doorways of internet start-ups and fancy condos.
This Saturday, I was walking up Powell Street, headed to a fancy expensed lunch. I encountered this man. Yeah, it was a start.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
A head popped up. A man smiled. “Yes, I’m fine.” His hair was knotted, and he was dirty. But he was happy and alert. He didn’t seem drunk, immediately ill, or high.
I asked if he was hungry. Could I get him anything? Did he want a sandwich? Nope. He just wanted to nap on the warm sidewalk. We talked for a few moments. Satisfied that he was immediately ok, I moved on.
Fifteen minutes later, I ordered a $15 chicken sandwich. There was a touch too much pesto. That’s not the way I like it.
I’m glad to see President Obama using the annual ritual of “pardoning” a turkey to tease the Republicans about “amnesty.” And I’m fully in sympathy with his daughters in their disdain for what has become more more bit of meaningless nonsense, performed only because it can’t be omitted.
But, like Etruscan liturgies that kept being performed long after even the priests had forgotten what they meant (Etruscan having become a thoroughly dead language) the Turkey Pardon once had a meaning. Unlike those liturgies, we even know what the meaning was.
Abraham Lincoln granted the original pardon in 1864; apparently his son Tad had developed a fondness for the bird being raised for the White House Thanksgiving table, and asked his father to let the creature live. Lincoln complied, starting what has become a tradition.
But letting a turkey live doesn’t require a “Presidential pardon.” What was Lincoln up to?
As Commander-in-Chief in wartime, he presided over a system of military discipline that included the death penalty not only for murder, but for desertion and falling asleep on watch. He insisted on personally reviewing every file, and avoided execution whenever he could: “I am trying to evade the butchering business lately.”
Lincoln’s semi-comic “mercy” toward the turkey – after all, it seems unlikely that the White House table went turkey-less that year – reflected his perfectly serious mercy toward human beings. President Obama, who presides over a Federal prison system now holding more than 200,000 people, has – like most of his recent predecessors – been more than a little stingy in his use of the power of clemency. Now that we’ve observed the Thanksgiving ritual, how about a good old-fashioned mass pardon for Christmas?
The RBC Film reviewing team is on holiday break this week, so we re-run a review that your family can enjoy together. Happy Thanksgiving!
I haven’t done a family film in awhile, so let me return this week to the same well from which I drew my recommendation of Treasure Island, namely Disney’s live-action post-war film canon. Kids and adults can both enjoy the dramatic, well-mounted adaptation of Jules Verne’s steampunk classic: 1954′s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The story opens with sailing vessels being destroyed in the South Seas by a mysterious underwater creature. Is it a kraken, a dragon or something else? At the behest of the U.S. government, a Parisian professor (Paul Lukas), his faithful assistant (Peter Lorre) and a free-spirited sailor (Kirk Douglas) join a military expedition to either find the monster or prove it doesn’t exist. In a fatal confrontation, their ship encounters disaster, which brings them face to face with Captain Nemo (James Mason), his devoted crew, and his extraordinary “submarine boat”.
Mason, as the tortured, destructive yet also sympathetic Nemo is in top form, adding weight to proceedings that might otherwise have been comic bookish. Lukas, as the brilliant scientist who is both Nemo’s prisoner and his nagging conscience, is an effective foil for Mason. Lorre isn’t given a huge amount to do, but he makes the most of it by being more vulnerable and afraid that the other central players, thereby giving the audience someone with whom to identify.
The special effects were trend setting at the time and still hold up pretty well today, as does the knockout set design on the submarine. It’s particularly hard to forget Nemo playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the organ as the Nautilus glides through the ocean deep. Also adding to the striking look of the film is Peter Ellenshaw, who as in Treasure Island does magnificent matte work (the crowded shipyard at the beginning and the Island of Volcania at the end are flawless).
The film has two weaknesses. The first is Kirk Douglas’ endless mugging and preening. I don’t know if Director Richard Fleischer couldn’t control his star’s legendary desire for attention or gave him bad direction, but it gets old pretty quickly. The second is that like many films of the period (e.g., King Solomon’s Mines), this one includes “nature photography” moments that would have dazzled audiences at the time but are pretty slow stuff for a generation that has the web, television and a thousand episodes of Jacques Costeau at its fingertips.
But neither of those flaws stops this from being outstanding family entertainment with exciting action scenes, a strong story, eye-catching visuals and moments of real emotion. It’s great fun for you and the kids on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
I close this recommendation with a must-view clips for film-buffs. The truly spectacular fight with the giant squid in the film version released to theaters was not the first one that was shot. Here is the inferior original, the “Sunset Squid Sequence”.
Early this morning I was walking back from a poker game with a friend of mine, and in discussing the various memorable hands I was reminded of how the frailties of human cognition can cause us to regret decisions that should not be regretted and to revisit our basic “rules of life” when it fact we should keep calm and carry on.
There were 9 players at the table and the game was Texas hold ‘em. My hole cards were rags: A 4 of clubs and a 3 of diamonds. Several of the players in front of me made large bets, including one chap who almost never bluffs (i.e., when he bets big, he has good cards). My decision rule for these situations it to fold, and that’s what I did.
The flop then came up with two 4s and a 3, meaning I would have been handed a full house if I had stayed in. The pot ended up being large because multiple players had strong hands, but not enough to beat the full house. By folding, I missed out on a huge pot.
The common tendency in this situation is to kick oneself: How could I have been so stupid? In light of full information, I see that my decision rule had a lousy outcome. The trick in these moments, when a vivid, easily recalled example of a bad outcome can fool you into overestimating how representative it is, is to look back at the base rates of the consequences of your decision rule. When I did that, I realized that over the course of the game I had been in this same situation a half dozen times and in every other case, if I had stayed in, I would have been crushed. There was in short nothing wrong with my general decision rule to fold when I have terrible hole cards and multiple players in front of me have made big bets.
To move from this trivial experience to a more consequential example of the same principle, let me relate a story about a treasured mentor who got absolutely conned by a selfish and dishonest academic. The con artist managed to get an enormous amount of scut work dumped on my mentor yet also persuaded everyone in the upper ranks of the university that he had done it all himself, which lead to an award for the con artist and not my mentor.
My mentor was utterly unperturbed and his explanation stayed with me. “I trust people. It’s how I operate. As a result, once every decade or so I get totally taken in by a sociopath like him. I accept that cost because the rest of the time, trusting people makes me a happier and better human being, which is worth much more.”
Yes. anyone involved in politics sometimes thinks the voters are sort of stupid, because of course the voters often act stupidly. The rational-choice political scientists have actually formulated theories of “rational ignorance” to explain why people vote on evidence that would never persuade them to buy a used car: voters aren’t spending their own money. (And no, the inference that democratic government is a mistake, or alternatively that government is always rotten and ought to be minimized, isn’t justified, unless you’ve examined the consequences of undemocratic government of of unchecked private action and found that they’re not as bad.)
And yes, it was damned silly for Jonathan Gruber to let himself get caught on camera saying what everyone knows to be partially true.
But Jonathan Gruber didn’t just win an election by lying to voters. The Republicans did. I’m happy to give Trey Gowdy credit for telling the truth at last, but of course he knew the truth three weeks ago, when publishing it could have had an impact on the midterm election results. Even a relatively honest Republican preferred to have his party win by lying to taking the risk of telling the American people the truth.
Let’s just recall how ghoulish this whole business has been. Republicans have – with some success – tried to get political gain out of the deaths of four Americans who died for their country at the hands of its enemies, and kept doing so long after the spuriousness of the conspiracy theories was clear.
The extremism, mendacity, and lack of scruple of the Teahadi-dominated GOP have risen to the level of a constitutional crisis. That’s observable fact. It’s time for reporters who pride themselves on “objectivity” to start reporting that fact, rather than groveling to the successful scoundrels and blaming their victims.
All it took for Mitch McConnell to see eye-to-eye with Barack Obama was victory. After reelection in Kentucky, the presumptive Senate Majority Lead told reporters that, “We ought to see what areas of agreement there are and see if we can make some progress for the country.” This is the same can-do note of cheery bipartisanship that the president has struck every day since taking office. He struck it again after his Democrats lost control of the Senate as well as numerous seats in the House of Representatives. “The American people sent a message, one they have sent for several elections now,” Obama said, with cheer. “They expect the people they elect to work as hard as they do. They want us to get the job done. We can surely find ways to work together on issues where there’s broad agreement.”
Indeed, Obama has expressed the preference for (and empirical necessity of) bipartisan governance for a long time. But there is a difference between 2009 and now: He probably no longer believes it. This is a good thing. Obama’s first term was hobbled by an effective strategy of massive resistance devised by McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and a handful of Ayn Rand-John Birch Society billionaires who financed and built what later became the Tea Party. His first term was also mired in Obama’s deeply felt conviction that the promise of American democracy is maximized when the maximum number of stakeholders participates in the democratic process. This is an admirable worldview but one that’s vulnerable to partisan power plays of the sort exercised by an opposition party with no interest, and no tactical reason, to participate in a process whose terms and conditions it did not control.
In keeping with his communitarian belief in “participatory democracy,” Obama allowed the Congress in his first term to debate the merits of the Affordable Care Act. That bill was already a concession. Its main feature—providing universal health care through private health insurance companies rather than through a federal government program like Medicare—was crafted in the late 1980s by the conservative Heritage Foundation. (Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would later enact a similar plan as the governor of Massachusetts.) Instead of ramming the measure through a Congress controlled by his party, Obama lived up to his beliefs by allowing Senator Max Baucus, a conservative western Democrat who chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley to hash out terms acceptable to conservatives. Instead, Grassley had no intention of participating. He and his allies fomented through that long summer all manner of hysteria over death panels, socialized medicine, and “pulling the plug on Grandma.” As Lou Dubose, editor of The Washington Spectator noted, Grassley “created the space for the extreme right to take control of the narrative and define the president’s signature piece of legislation.” That’s true, but it’s worth remembering the well-intended president gave that space away. In Washington, no good deed goes unpunished.
Washington lives by another paradox. When Republicans are in power, Democrats must compromise on Republican terms. When Democrats are in power, Democrats must compromise on Republican terms. This mindset predates Obama. Forty years ago, conservative billionaires like Richard Mellon Scaife and Joseph Coors created their own think tanks and beltway media organization to counteract, in the 1960s, what was actual liberal bias in the news. Eric Alterman describes the effort as having had a “gravitational pull” on the political spectrum—the center is generally pulled farther and father to the right. “They created another pole,” Alterman noted in a speech at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University in 2003. “The part that used to be on the left is completely remote and vacant. It’s like you picked up the football field and you move it a hundred yards down the line, so that part of the football field where you used to play is no longer there and the part that used to be conservative is now where the liberals are.”
So Democrats, even when in charge and even when they possess the moral high ground, are expected to play ball. In 2009, Obama refrained from using the power mandated to him by the people to pass a health care law that would benefit the people. His opponents exercised no such restraint two weeks after winning this year’s midterms. Within hours of reconvening, House Republicans authorized the building of the Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. If built, the Keystone would import some 800,000 barrels of tar-sands crude every day, a kind of oil particularly rich in carbon and therefore particularly devastating to the environment. Senate Democrats successfully filibustered the bill, but this is evidently a preamble to the next Congress, which convenes in January. The Republicans aren’t inviting Democrats to join them. They are daring them to stop ram-through legislation that could for generations jeopardize the health and safety of the people. In 2012, NASA scientist James Hansen warned that if the Keystone XL Pipeline is built, it would be “game over for the climate.”
After Mitt Romney’s defeat, there was much talk of “civil war” within the ranks of the Republican Party. Much of that narrative came from within the party itself, as it was imperative the GOP mainstream not be seen as in thrall to the impolitic impulses of the extremist Tea Party. Given the origins of that narrative, it should be no surprise the “civil war” was almost entirely rhetorical. Even so, the Republicans had little reason to be chastened. With rare exception, two-term presidents lose the Congress in their sixth year. Moreover, the Republicans enjoy an advantage—in midterms, white voters head to the polls in greater numbers than non-white voters. Combined with the Democratic Party’s 40-year effort to distance itself from working-class whites, the GOP this year was poised to win, as long as the leadership tamped down the rank-and-file’s more nativist and racist urges in competitive states like North Carolina and Iowa. Hence, McConnell and the GOP have been rewarded for their six-year campaign of obstruction. The idea that McConnell, in victory, has been suddenly gripped by the desire to comprise is more than optimistic; it’s delusional. Why “see what areas of agreement there are” when you can win by always—I mean, always—saying no.
So not much has changed. The Republicans will obstruct what remains of Obama’s agenda. The only change will be Obama’s taking a turn in this new era of obstructionism. The House again voted in November to repeal the Affordable Care Act (the total number of attempts is nearing 60). The Senate may vote in favor next year, but the president will veto (Obama’s total number of vetoes is 2; Ronald Reagan’s was 78 and Bill Clinton’s was 37). And Obama has continued to abandon all hope of bipartisanship. The final straw came when he last took seriously Republican concerns over the budget deficit. He agreed to brutal across-the-board cuts. Those cuts in addition to the Affordable Care Act’s power to contain soaring health care costs has led to a budget deficit lower than any time since the Ford administration. Yet Republicans remain unmoved. And now Obama has moved on. Among his 191 executive orders (cf. Reagan’s 381 and Clinton’s 364), Obama has given legal status to the children of illegal immigrants; raised the minimum wage to $10.10 for employees of companies with federal contracts; allowed to expire contracts for companies with histories of workplace violations; permitted college graduates to repay a minimum of students loans per year; and increased the fuel-mileage requirements of American-made vehicles. Furthermore, he is reported to be considering closing the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and he is said, in the wake of unrest in Ferguson, to have instructed federal law enforcement to stop racial profiling.
Obama’s dream of being a “transformative” president may have been snuffed out in 2010. but he’s not wasting his last two years. Among the Big Three on his 2009 to-do list was health care, climate and immigration. He’s already got his health care law. It’s here to stay despite the continued threats of a Republican Congress and Republican-control Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Obama administration announced after the midterms a deal in which the U.S. and China—the world’s top two air polluters—agreed to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent over the coming years. Naomi Klein said the China deal will impact domestic energy policy by undermining “the most effective argument in defense of climate negligence Why should we stop polluting if China won’t?” Also, the Environmental Protection Agency is set to impose strict limits on the 600-some coal-fire plants generating electricity around the country (the new rules are now being finalized). Dubose called this step “the most sweeping environmental policy since LBJ signed the Clean Air Act” in 1963. By the time Obama leaves office, he will have reduced the use of coal and thanks to public investments embedded in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he will have created at the same time a viable commercial market for solar power. He will have done more for the environment than any president since Jimmy Carter’s highly prescient yet highly pilloried plea for energy conservation in 1979.
As for immigration, the president, as noted, has made legal room for children brought to the U.S. by their parents. He is also expected to announce a series of executive orders that protect from deportation as many as 5 million more people. For Democrats, this is, for two reasons, very good news. One, Hispanics are a growing part of the Obama-Democratic coalition. Two, they threatened to bolt if Obama didn’t stop deporting more illegal immigrants than previous presidents have. All of them. Republicans, meanwhile, say Obama should work with the Congress, but that argument requires a degree of memory loss. House Republicans killed the Senate’s bipartisan reform bill in 2013. The real reason Republicans hope to prevent Obama from using his authority is two-fold. One, the GOP’s Know-Nothing faction doesn’t want anything that smells of “amnesty.” That means no reform. Ever. Two, the GOP’s leadership needs Hispanics, despite the Know-Nothing faction, and it wants to take credit for immigration reform. From both points of view, the goal is greater obstruction. That could mean another government shutdown. It could also mean a self-destructive bid for impeachment.
Washington politicos say we are seeing the emergence of two electorates. One votes during presidential elections. The other votes during midterms. One is diverse in age, race, economics and geography. The other is old, white, affluent, and suburban. The theory is worrisome to progressives. Their values are the majority’s value, they believe, but they can’t act if the majority doesn’t vote. More importantly, progressives believe their agenda can’t be achieved without the mandate of the majority, because anything less would be illegitimate. That’s fine as far as it goes. But perhaps “the professional left,” as former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs once quipped, can grow more comfortable with the use of power. Certainly the president has, and that’s for the betterment of us all. If the “two electorate” theory is correct, Republicans are unlikely to take the White House in two years. That means more of the same from Republicans. That means Obama’s executive orders will outlive his administration. A state of affairs such as this may not satisfy the egalitarian ideal of “participatory democracy,” but sometimes the ends do justify the means when seen in their proper context. In that, perhaps, progressives can find agreement and, as Mitch McConnell once noted, for different reasons, “make some progress for the country.”
Over the past couple of weeks, my essays in search of temperate cannabis policies have appeared in Slate, Vice, the New York Times, and now National Review. Other than the expected trolling from pot fans, pot-industry flacks, and fundamentalist libertarians, they haven’t drawn much response. I sometimes think that trying to talk reasonably about cannabis is a little bit like trying to talk reasonably about football on sports-talk radio. It’s a subject so hard to think clearly about, and so easy to get angry about, that saying anything other than “Racist drug war! Legalize it!” or “Brain damage! What about the children?” seems to miss the whole point of the exercise. But I’m grateful to all the editors involved for giving me the space.
In my recommendation of Dear Murderer, I described my fondness for British films in which brutal people say awful things with perfect manners and diction. This week’s film recommendation is another fine example of the “Terribly sorry old chap, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you” school of Brit Noir: 1949′s Obsession.
Like Dear Murderer, the film revolves around a beautiful, faithless wife (Sally Gray) whose urbane, intelligent cuckold (Robert Newton) seeks indirect vengeance by trying to kill one of her lovers in a fashion that the police will never uncover. Gray, who was with us in prior film recommendation Green for Danger, is at her most alluring…and her most cold. If there were any doubt as the film progresses, the final scene makes clear her character’s utter selfishness, and she puts it over in a manner worthy of noir’s most memorable femme fatales.
Robert Newton, as a calculating, vindictive psychiatrist plotting the perfect murder, is even better. It’s hard to believe that his suave, perfectly tailored character is the creation of the same actor who made “Arrrrhhh!” the byword of would be pirates everywhere (see my prior recommendation Treasure Island for details). Because he is ostensibly the victim of his wayward wife and conducts himself so politely, it’s possible to feel sorry for him until about half way through the film, when a critical scene with a little dog makes you realize that he is, like his spouse, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.
As the lover who is to be killed, Phil Brown is solid, though a stronger actor might have been able to do more in the many face-offs he has with Newton. Naunton Wayne — for once not co-cast with Basil Reardon — comes off better as a dogged Columbo-type detective, and also skillfully injects some comic relief into the otherwise grim story.
The other key presence here is director Edward Dmytryk, who was essentially exiled to Britain during the McCarthy witch hunts. He had a smaller budget to work with than what he was no doubt used to in Hollywood, but he gets everything possible out of the small cast and few sets as the film unfolds.
If you have trouble finding a copy of Obsession, look for it under an alternate title that was adopted at some point after its release: The Hidden Room. Any required extra hunting effort on your part will be well-rewarded by this finely-crafted piece of cruel and suspenseful entertainment.
p.s. Look fast for Stanley Baker (whose films were recommended here, here and here) as a cop on the beat.
p.p.s. If Stanford grad Phil Brown looks vaguely familiar, it’s probably because he played Luke’s Uncle Owen in the opening scenes of Star Wars!
Despite promising my wife that I would not add to our home’s existing glut of books, I picked up three books at the APSA annual meeting, mostly for free. One was Richard Norton Smith’s On His Own Terms, a long-awaited biography of Nelson Rockefeller. I don’t have much to add to reviews by Timothy Noah, David Nasaw, and Jeffrey Frank. (I think that Nasaw is much too harsh in his judgment of Rockefeller). On His Own Terms is long and thorough. It illuminates parts of Rockefeller’s life he tried to hide, such as his dyslexia and philandering. It explains how Rockefeller’s love of art was central to his career, which is unusual for politicians, who are more likely to be golfers or baseball fans than serious students of Rothko and Rauschenberg. Smith is especially good at discussing Rockefeller’s actions as Governor of New York and his complicated relationship with Mayor John Lindsay. On the other hand, his detailed discussions of the state legislature may baffle those who don’t know their Steinguts from their Carlinos. He devotes an entire chapter to the tawdry circumstances of Rockefeller’s death, which may strike some readers as a little much.
Despite On His Own Terms’ great length, Smith skimps on some subjects that might interest political scientists, such as Rockefeller’s more-complicated-than-you-think relationship with Richard Nixon. He provides illuminating descriptions of Rockefeller’s presidential ambitions, but won’t the judgments of any serious students of the period. I find it hard to find a path that places Rocky in the Oval Office, except perhaps if he had accepted Nixon’s offer of the second spot in 1960, and became his obvious successor. Had it not been for Rockefeller’s divorce and (especially) remarriage, he might have won the Republican nomination in 1964, but he surely would have lost to Lyndon Johnson.
It’s striking that it has taken 35 years for a definitive biography of Nelson Rockefeller, a two-time presidential candidate, a four-term governor of New York, and a vice president. There are some obvious reasons for this: some archival material has only recently become available, authorized biographer Cary Reich tragically died after finishing the first volume of a two-volume work. But the more fundamental reason is that Rockefeller has been forgotten, perhaps because there has been no obvious constituency to celebrate his memory.
It’s hard to maintain widespread posthumous interest in an American politicians who did not become president. But other such figures of Rockefeller’s generation have had longer afterlives. Conservatives celebrate Barry Goldwater. Different sorts of liberals memorialize Adlai Stevenson, Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey. Neoconservatives lionize Henry M. Jackson. While few still praise George Wallace, at least he’s central to the civil rights revolution - if only as a villain. (Rockefeller certainly was a significant figure in support of the movement - he paid for Martin Luther King’s funeral, after all - but he’s not essential to its story).
Rockefeller has no constituency. Conservatives with AARP cards despise him; younger ones probably are oblivious. Baby-boom liberals did not embrace the taker of Attica, the author of draconian drug laws, the patron of Henry Kissinger and Edward Teller. The New Left despised a fervent Cold Warrior who seemed the epitome of “corporate liberalism.” While Rockefeller did try to seize RFK’s liberal mantle after his assassination (in retrospect, not a well-thought-out path to a Republican presidential nomination), he was a little old and un-hip to be embraced by the counterculture. (His legalization of abortion in New York State owed more to his brother John’s work at the Population Council than to the rising women’s movement). Even the few remaining Republican moderates rarely mention Nelson Rockefeller, so as to avoid the tax-and-spend label. (He is useful, however, to those GOP partisans who want to praise their party’s civil rights record - Jackie Robinson can be better described as a Rockefeller loyalist than as a staunch Republican). His record as governor, impressive in some ways (my family has benefited from his enormous expansion of the State University of New York), is besmirched by the fiscal mess he left.
Much like the modernist art and architecture he so loved, Rockefeller’s politics haven’t aged well. He was very much a man of the “Greatest Generation,” a product of “the American High’s” confidence that major institutions could always meet society’s challenges, given enough money and enough blue-ribbon task forces. Rockefeller not only believed in Big Government and Big Business, he had warm relations with Big Labor, and served as patron to both Big Intellect and Big Architecture. In an era marked by low trust in society’s institutions, Rockefeller’s heyday feels very long ago.
I can’t think of many people who resemble Rockefeller today. The closest I can come are the last two mayors of New York City. With Giuliani, he shares cultural liberalism, a messy personal life, a strong law-and-order inclination, and a pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination that failed for reasons that seem obvious in retrospect. With Bloomberg, he shares vast wealth (duh), an unsentimental attitude toward power, a love for technocratic paternalism, and a tin ear for west-of-the-Hudson sensibilities. But there is one surprising heir to the Rockefeller legacy. Eisenhower once said of Rockefeller, “He has one hundred ideas. One of them may be brilliant it’s worthwhile to have him around because that one idea is worth the ninety-nine that aren’t.” I think there are those who make the same statement about Newt Gingrich.
While you are twiddling your trackball thumbs waiting for the DACA explosion. something slightly useful.
I finally bought Edward Tufte’s classic of graphical design The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. It’s so good it has no competitors, like the Department of Water Engineering at the Technical University of Delft. Struggling to find a niggle against a nearly perfect work, my only complaint is that he compares his masterpiece to Strunk and White’s error-packed The Elements of Style: a “malign little compendium of bad advice” (Stephen Dodson); “the book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar” (Geoffrey Pullum). If you have any serious professional or even amateur interest in charts, buy Tufte’s book: he gets all your money as self-publisher, as commercial publishing houses refused to cede him the full graphical control he demanded. More fools they.
The book lucidly combines general graphical principles on “the revelation of the complex” and a plethora of striking and even amazing examples of good and bad practice. It would be a disservice to offer a dummy’s summary on this blog. What I tried to do was to investigate how much of his specific good advice, as opposed to the general principles, can be put into effect using a standard office software suite. I have LibreOffice. Most of the features apply in Excel, which does offer more: in some case misguidedly, in the 3D pyramid stacked histograms, with a variable lie factor as the data correspond to the heights of the pyramid slices while the eye reads their volume. If you want to make marginal or bubble plots, you will need specialised software like this or this.
I’ll take a worked example. Warning: the page below the fold is large, with many images, pushing the envelope on resolution. The WordPress software seems to muddy the resolution of images so you will need to click on each to get a proper view.
Tufte tells us to choose interesting, rich data. Obvious, but often ignored. I’ll use those from the annual LLNL energy flowcharts for the US economy. Here is that for 2013.
This is itself a fine piece of work. The only thing wrong is that the areas of the total boxes at the right do nor match those at the left. I once located a higher-resolution version, presumably the original, where the boxes are correct. Whoever converted this very large image to png format to fit on a webpage truncated the boxes. Keep control of your work.
They have charts for five previous years. It’s very difficult to compare years. Let’s try to chart the changes between 2008 and 2013, for a subset of key data. I’m especially interested in wasted energy, which happens at the right-hand side.
Let’s start with the popular pie charts. Tufte is against them:
A table is nearly always better than a single pie chart; the only worse design than a single pie chart is several of them, for the viewer is asked to compare quantities located in spatial disarray ….
Here they are. I left the default output of LibreOffice, with few exceptions: the data legends are in bold; the pies were carefully resized so that areas correspond to the true ratios of the data.
The lesser problems include garish colours, oversaturated so that any legends placed within them are unreadable, and a legend train wreck at the top of the 2008 wasted energy pie on thin pie slices. For some reason the lettering has turned out poorly. The colours can be fixed by editing them; the lettering only by deleting from the chart software and re-entering by hand in a picture editor. The software changed the order of the sectors when I added electricity generation to the waste chart - I’ve no idea how to fix this. (The net output of electricity generation is included in the other sectors, see the flowchart.)
The main problem of difficult visual comparison is unfixable. What would you say is the ratio of useful to wasted energy in either year? The latter is clearly more, but could be by anything from 20% to 60%. The eye is not nearly as good at estimating areas as lengths. The true increase is 40%.
So let’s follow Tufte’s advice and put our 10 data points in a table.
I take issue with Tufte here. A table is fine for at most a double comparison of a set of data: say, within a year between sectors, and between useful and wasted energy. Add a third variable such as time, and it gets confusing. So we will see what we can do with stacked bar charts. Here is the raw default result.
This is already a considerable improvement. It is quite easy to run a visual comparison both between useful and wasted energy within each year (adjacent columns), and of useful or wasted energy between years (alternate columns). The intuitive perception of the ratios of the column heights is much more accurate. All the sectors are in the right order. The software offers percentage bar charts, but what’s the point? The percentages are just as clear visually without them, and the varying height adds another useful datum, the absolute total.
The remaining weaknesses are of visual comfort, elegance and legibility. First we add a white horizontal grid as a discreet reference point - a tip from Tufte. This suggested a pastel coloured background. To make the white line run through the columns, I made them 50% transparent. You want to start with a well-saturated colour for this to work. I played around with the colours to make an agreeable effect. Tufte does not offer much advice on colours, in this book at any rate. I like pastels, and chose related colours for my four final consumption sectors, and a contrasting one for the electricity waste, a category of its own. I also added data labels within the columns, allowing the precise numbers to be read off directly.
What are the tick labels on the left-hand axis doing? The numbers are already in the columns. So we get rid of them. Tufte suggests, for scatter plots, replacing regular interval ticks on the axes with exact marginal coordinate values; not feasible with ordinary tools. Similarly for truncating the lines of the axes to the data range. Another way of combining numbers with charts is to put a table below the columns, as with this good example from EPIA.
Tufte insists that revision is as necessary for charts as it is for writing. First, I added the column totals, a useful piece of information, using a picture editor (SansSerif PhotoPlus Starter edition – free). More important, I decided to change the units, a substantive not a graphical issue. The quad (quadrillion BTU) is a standard unit for discussing very large quantities of energy, as for the US economy. But it reflects the era of fossil fuels we are leaving for one powered predominantly by renewable electricity. For geeks, the quad is deprecated as not an SI unit. There is no loss in intuitive grasp in shifting to SI. Neither the quad nor the BTU has any day-to-day resonance, unlike the kilowatt, roughly the power delivered by a small horse. (Racing cyclists can sustain 400 watts for a while). The terawatt (trillion watts) is too small as a measure for the US economy, so let me introduce you to the petawatt, a quadrillion watts or billion megawatts. (Get used to the prefix: the NSA are already up to exabytes – the next jump beyond petabytes – at their Borgesian Utah data centre. That’s thousands of petabytes of selfies and emails, no more useful (judging by Benghazi and ISIS) than Smaug’s bed of gold. So I recalculated the spreadsheet in petawatt-hours. A small explanation went into the chart.
Finally I decided to replace the data legends manually in the picture editor, allowing the placement I wanted. I added explanations of the electricity issue and the units, and my name as author. Here’s the end product. Not great, but I think a decent piece of work. I fancy I’m not far from the limits imposed by today’s bog-standard software. In a few years my grandchildren will be emulating Hans Rosling’s dynamic bubble plot (2.30 minutes in).
Was it worth the effort? I gained no new insights from the work, and you should not expect any if you emulate. Chart design is all for getting across your thinking about data to your audience, not refining it for yourself. By that standard, I hope I succeeded. Let me know. I’d have liked to add thin line borders to the column segments, but neither LibreOffice nor Excel offer this, and I felt I’d invested more than enough time in the project already.
What are then the points the chart illustrates?
There is a colossal amount of energy waste, and it’s overwhelmingly in just two sectors, electricity generation and transport. Shift to renewable generation (100% efficient by accounting definition) and electric vehicles (something like 85% efficient plug-to-wheel) and you would save waste, and hence carbon emissions, equal to the entire useful energy consumption of the country, with no other changes in lifestyle or the production basket. Replacing current primary energy production is unnecessary, and it’s the wrong metric. Focus on useful energy and waste. (The accounting convention for renewables and nuclear is incidentally correct. Inefficiencies in the form of unconverted wind and sunlight, and heat from reactors, are absolutely trivial environmentally, unlike the emissions from wasted fossil fuels. Conversion efficiency gains are of course welcome there, and costs create a sufficient incentive to pursue them.)
US industry is remarkably energy-efficient compared to commerce (including government) and households. How it rates against German industry is another matter.
Obama’s presidency, in spite of sound policies, has not yet achieved significant reductions in energy consumption and efficiency. Some of these policies, notably the EPA coal regulations and vehicle mileage standards, will of course certainly have a bigger impact in the future.