I.

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

II.

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.

III.

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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Your personal zeitgeist is that silly yet haunting list of things that coincidentally seem to pop up repeatedly in your life in different contexts. Do you notice every once in a while how you might not have thought about a certain thing for years and then suddenly it gets brought up in conversations several times in one week by different people? Or, you learn a new word and suddenly you see it everywhere?

Your personal zeitgeist is a funny and personal thing. Ask anyone what kinds of things seem to be popping up repeatedly for them at the moment and almost everyone will have an answer. These small themes are the songs that life is playing on your soundtrack… they are the chapters in your book. They may have meaning, or they may be completely random, but they are usually enjoyable to explore. I've found, however, that if you pay attention to your zeitgeist and play along with a couple simple rules, that you can learn to enjoy the simple flow of them.

Zeitgeist Rules:

  1. In order for something to enter the zeitgeist, it must appear in your life three times, in three different contexts, within some limited period of time.
  2. Once something enters your zeitgeist, you must run with it. This might mean calling the person that you haven't talked to in years, or learning more about how some people switch hands when they cut something with a fork and knife and some people don't, or buy a painting of a fox that you see in a gallery window when foxes enter, or whatever you think seems naturally to extend from the item's continued presence in your life.
  3. See where it leads. Accept all offers related to the item. Trust it. Sometimes nothing interesting will follow out of the item, and sometimes a whole new world of sub-zeitgeist items will explode out of it and your life will be changed forever.

It's a simple and fun game, and allows you to enjoy and participate in the playfulness of life.

Like Christian over at Mind Hacks, I too am a big fan of Alain de Botton and am probably going to read his new book, The Architecture of Happiness. Unfortunately, unless I buy it from Amazon's UK site, I won't be able to get it until October.

The Guardian article on the book, A punch in the façade, is less than glowing. However, from a quick comparison of the review with the book's synopsis makes me think the reviewer might be missing the point of the whole book.

From my thorough review of the book's dust jacket, I think Alain might be critiquing architecture from a deliberately unique angle. In particular, for not taking itself seriously enough as an controller of human emotions. We are, in many ways, a product of the places we live, and the environment we're surrounded by. Chairs, tables, desks, and hallways contribute to a good percentage of the 40 billion pieces of sensory data that enter our eyes, butts, and fingers per second. Most of that data is filtered out in our routine day, but is still processed and categorized and analyzed by our subconscious. I have noticed that simply changing the color of a wall or getting a new sofa will do a lot to affect my mood over a long period of time, even though I can't pinpoint exact reasons for the change. Alain, I'm guessing, is taking this point and running with it in his typical clever and articulate manner… and I think he deliberately left out more practical and common perspectives of architecture's usefulness and aesthetics for real architects.