Edward Tufte on space jokes and medians

June 16, 2006


In my flickr stream I noticed that Edward Tufte's new book, Beautiful Evidence, was out. I think I'll try to get it at the library. It's too nice to own.

Beautiful Evidence, cover


It led me to an interesting statement he makes about designing plaques for spaceships in such a way that their message might be understood by illiterate aliens. He proposes putting a magic trick on it… a human defying gravity. Because gravity is a universal law, he suggests the possibility that this magic trick would be funny anywhere.

space plaque joke

Thinking about how to make aliens laugh is probably one of the most enjoyable activities one can partake in. The original plague, with explanation, is here.


Looking around the site a little more led me to this essay of Daniel Gould's titled The Median Isn't the Message. And, other than being a delightful read, it also allowed me to brush up on my understanding of means and medians and misunderstanding statistics in general:

The mean is our usual concept of an overall average – add up the items and divide them by the number of sharers (100 candy bars collected for five kids next Halloween will yield 20 for each in a just world). The median, a different measure of central tendency, is the half-way point. If I line up five kids by height, the median child is shorter than two and taller than the other two (who might have trouble getting their mean share of the candy). A politician in power might say with pride, "The mean income of our citizens is $15,000 per year." The leader of the opposition might retort, "But half our citizens make less than $10,000 per year." Both are right, but neither cites a statistic with impassive objectivity. The first invokes a mean, the second a median. (Means are higher than medians in such cases because one millionaire may outweigh hundreds of poor people in setting a mean; but he can balance only one mendicant in calculating a median).

He also touched on the very mysterious fact that the best way to fight cancer is to be cheery and optimistic about it. I love it when self-help philosophies collide with medicine and things as serious as cancer treatment.


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