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Posts Tagged ‘representation

“Visualization gives you answers to questions you didn’t know you had”*…

Reckoning before writing: Mesopotamian Clay Tokens

Physical representations of data have existed for thousands of years. The List of Physical Visualizations (and the accompanying Gallery) collect illustrative examples, e.g…

5500 BC – Mesopotamian Clay Tokens

The earliest data visualizations were likely physical: built by arranging stones or pebbles, and later, clay tokens. According to an eminent archaeologist (Schmandt-Besserat, 1999):

“Whereas words consist of immaterial sounds, the tokens were concrete, solid, tangible artifacts, which could be handled, arranged and rearranged at will. For instance, the tokens could be ordered in special columns according to types of merchandise, entries and expenditures; donors or recipients. The token system thus encouraged manipulating data by abstracting all possible variables. (Harth 1983. 19) […] No doubt patterning, the presentation of data in a particular configuration, was developed to highlight special items (Luria 1976. 20).”

Clay tokens suggest that physical objects were used to externalize information, support visual thinking and enhance cognition way before paper and writing were invented…

There are 370 entries (so far). Browse them at List of Physical Visualizations (@dataphys)

Ben Schneiderman


As we celebrate the concrete, we might carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Rolf Landauer; he was born on this date in 1927. A physicist, he made a number important contributions in a range of areas: the thermodynamics of information processing, condensed matter physics, and the conductivity of disordered media.

He is probably best remembered for “Landauer’s Principle,” which described the energy used during a computer’s operation. Whenever the machine is resetting for another computation, bits are flushed from the computer’s memory, and in that electronic operation, a certain amount of energy is lost (a simple logical consequence of the second law of thermodynamics). Thus, when information is erased, there is an inevitable “thermodynamic cost of forgetting,” which governs the development of more energy-efficient computers. The maximum entropy of a bounded physical system is finite– so while most engineers dealt with practical limitations of compacting ever more circuitry onto tiny chips, Landauer considered the theoretical limit: if technology improved indefinitely, how soon will it run into the insuperable barriers set by nature?

A so-called logically reversible computation, in which no information is erased, may in principle be carried out without releasing any heat. This has led to considerable interest in the study of reversible computing. Indeed, without reversible computing, increases in the number of computations per joule of energy dissipated must eventually come to a halt. If Koomey‘s law continues to hold, the limit implied by Landauer’s principle would be reached around the year 2050.


“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it”*…

We tend to think of the camera as a neutral technology; it isn’t. In dealing with the vast spectrum of human colors, photographic tools and practices tend to prioritize the lighter end of that range. And that bias has been there since the very beginning…

In 1888, George Eastman introduced a camera that revolutionized photography, making it accessible to thousands of amateurs. Kodak simplified the camera and offered to process film for the consumer. One of the company’s early advertising slogans was: “You press the button, we do the rest.” Kodak quickly grew into the biggest player in the industry. The company became almost synonymous with photography itself — like the Kleenex of cameras.

To meet the booming demand for photo processing and printing services, one hour photo labs popped up all over the country. And Kodak supplied a lot of those labs with printers. Each Kodak printer needed to be calibrated and standardized before photos were printed on it. And so the printers came with something called a “Shirley Card,” which was a color reference card created by Kodak in the 1950s. The original one had some color swatches and a picture of a white woman named Shirley Page, who worked as a Kodak employee at the time.

Kodak would ship printed Shirley cards to photo labs across the country, along with the film negatives needed to print the same image. Lab technicians processed the film, printed it, and ended up with multiple test prints. This allowed them to compare the Shirley card printed at Kodak with the Shirley cards printed in their lab. If something didn’t look right with the colors, they’d adjust. Once the printers were set, they’d start feeding film into the machines.

As time went on, Kodak began including other women on the cards, not just Shirley Page, but the name ‘Shirley Card’ stuck. Also, these new Shirleys all shared a common trait: they were all white, which meant that the printers were effectively set for white skin. And Shirley was basically used to calibrate every printer, every time, regardless of the color of the people in the actual photographs being printed. To get accurate prints of a person with darker skin you might have to adjust the printer settings. But that just wasn’t happening at most one hour photo labs. They weren’t about customized service. They were about being fast, standardized, and relatively cheap.

But way that photography prioritizes white skin goes beyond the role of the Shirley cards. If that were the only problem, it would be relatively easy to fix.

Instead, issues can start much earlier in the process, including with the lighting and camera settings used to capture the picture… the film itself, which was optimized for white skin.

Kodak was slow to adapt, but eventually did — not because they were listening to the complaints from people of color. Rather, Kodak changed their film because they were going to lose the business of two big professional clients: a chocolate company, and a furniture company. Again, it was a dynamic range issue. According to Earl Kage, the former manager of Kodak Research studios, the company had never even considered how expanding the dynamic range of their film would also improve how dark skin tones show up.

By the 80s, Kodak made adjustments to their film emulsions, and eventually introduced a product called Gold Max. Gold Max was leaps ahead of earlier Kodak films when it came to color representation — and the company advertised it that way, but without actually acknowledging the bias that had been baked into the film before. As Kodak started becoming more aware of racial bias in color imaging, they also introduced a multiracial Shirley Card…

But even though the technology of today is way better than the technology of the 1960s and 70s, there is still a lot of cultural inertia preventing dark skin from being photographed in compelling ways. Photography — and cinematography — isn’t just about the film used or the digital sensor in your camera or the techniques used to process your images. It’s also about lighting and staging and all these other elements. In other words, photography is still all about choices. And, in many ways, people still stumble when creating images of darker skin.

Nowadays, it’s much less the technology we’re working against when it comes to accurate representation in images. It’s the users of the technology and the institutions around them, that shape the images we see. Even if Kodak’s early promise was total ease — “you press the button, we do the rest” — the technology will never achieve point-and-click perfection. Because no technology is ever neutral. There will always be choices, and trade-offs and aesthetic judgments. The camera is an amazing tool, but creating a beautiful image…that part is up to us…

Shirley Cards,” from 99% Invisible (@99piorg)

* Edward Steichen


As we ruminate on representation, we might send well-lit, clearly-realized birthday greetings to Michael Busselle; he was born on this date in 1935. An accomplished photographer, he is perhaps better known as the author of many books of practical advice for photographers. His first book, Master Photography, has sold over a million copies worldwide. As his career developed, so did his sensitivity to the issues explored above; his later books (like The Art of Photographic Lighting) attempt to address them.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 14, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Suffrage is the pivotal right”*…

… but how we vote matters. We tend to take the electoral system in which we exercise our franchise for granted. Perhaps we should think more broadly. Why Is This Interesting? explains how Venice selected its Doges, and ponders the questions that raises for our own elections…

The way societies make decisions is important. There is a growing understanding that different systems can lead to quite different outcomes. Ireland rejected the British first-past-the-post system after independence and adopted the single transferable vote in 1921. New York City started using ranked-choice voting this summer, with some hiccups. Other countries have moved to full proportional representation where seats are allocated to parties more or less based on national vote share.

There’s also the question of the best level of representation. Should city councils be elected at-large for the whole city (like in Cambridge, Mass.) or in single-member districts, and how would that affect outcomes such as diversity and zoning? Perhaps some decisions should be taken away from the city council, and either moved down to the neighborhood level or up to the regional level? And should some decisions, such as monetary policy, be taken out of democratic control altogether and left to technocrats?

Using sortition to choose government officials, as Venice and Ancient Athens did, is a niche idea these days, but in common-law countries, juries deciding legal cases are (supposed to be) chosen randomly from the population. Nobel laureate Daniel McFadden wants to use “economic juries” of randomly selected people to decide on big public projects, arguing that this can better reflect public opinion than a referendum.

Since these political design choices affect policy outcomes, it would be naive to think this is only about high-minded notions of the “quality” of decisions. But that doesn’t make the question of how societies should make decisions any less interesting.

What’s the best way to hold elections? On Venice, decisions, and policy outcomes: “The Dogal Elections Edition,” from Why is This Interesting? (@WhyInteresting) Eminently worth reading in full.

[Image above: source]

* Susan B. Anthony


As we ponder the practice of polling, we we might recall that it was on this date in 1620 that 41 adult male colonists recently arrived in what we now call Massachusetts, including two indentured servants, signed the Mayflower Compact (although it wasn’t called that at the time). Though they intended to reach the Colony of Virginia, storms had forced The Mayflower and its pilgrim passengers to anchor at the hook of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. It was unwise to continue with provisions running short. This inspired some of the non-Puritan passengers (whom the Puritans referred to as ‘Strangers’) to proclaim that they “would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them” since they would not be settling in the agreed-upon Virginia territory. To prevent this, the Pilgrims determined to establish their own government, while still affirming their allegiance to the Crown of England. Thus, the Mayflower Compact was based simultaneously upon a majoritarian model and the settlers’ allegiance to the king. It was in essence a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the community’s rules and regulations for the sake of order and survival– the first (colonial) document to establish self-government in the New World.

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899


“That’s all we’re asking for: an end to the antidemocratic and un-American practice of gerrymandering congressional districts”*…




Though a substantial majority disapprove of the practice, the Supreme Court recently refused to address the issue of partisan redistricting– gerrymandering…

The Supreme Court will not end extreme partisan gerrymandering. In a 5-4 decision along ideological lines, the court ruled Thursday that partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts cannot be limited by federal courts. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, writing that “what the appellees and dissent seek is an unprecedented expansion of judicial power.”

Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent was scathing. “For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” she wrote in her opening sentence. She argued that imposing limits on gerrymandered districts is not beyond the scope of the court: “The partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”

The ruling almost certainly would have been different if Anthony Kennedy were still on the court. Before retiring last year, Kennedy had been the swing justice on previous gerrymandering cases. He had said that partisan gerrymandering was within the purview of the court but that the justices should hold off on ruling any particular gerrymander unconstitutional until a manageable standard for measuring gerrymandering emerged. Since he took that position in 2004, reformers had been attempting to find such a standard. Legal scholars and statisticians developed various measurements to try to win over the court, but without Kennedy, those efforts turned out to be futile…

FiveThirtyEight considers the possible impacts of the Court’s abnegation and explores other paths to a remedy: “Partisan Gerrymandering Isn’t The Supreme Court’s Problem Anymore.”

See also: “Electoral map bias may worsen as U.S. gerrymandering battle shifts to states” and “The Courts Won’t End Gerrymandering. Eric Holder Has a Plan to Fix It Without Them.”

* President Ronald Reagan (in 1988, illustrating on the one hand that this is an issue of long standing [see here for earlier history]; and on the other, that shoes have a way of moving from one foot to the other…)


As we recall that the American Revolution was, in part, about the lack of fair representation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress.

Use it or lose it.

220px-United_States_Declaration_of_Independence source



“Be careful of Mankind; they do not deserve you”*…


The recent theatrical release of Wonder Woman briefly catapulted the question of female superhero representation into the mainstream. For some, the character is a feminist icon — even Gloria Steinem wrote about her — and many fans (though not all) felt this wasn’t just another superhero movie, but rather a pivotal moment in the portrayal of women in popular culture.

Why all the fuss? Well, the truth is that the comics industry has had a complicated relationship with female characters. They are often hyper-sexualizedunnecessarily brutalizedstereotyped, and used as tokens. They’re also rare. Only 26.7 percent of all DC and Marvel characters are female, and only 12 percent of mainstream superhero comics have female protagonists.

I decided to look beyond the gender ratio to see if we could learn more about how females are represented. Using characters from DC and Marvel in the ComicVine database, I analyzed naming conventions, types of superpowers, and the composition of teams to see how male and female genders are portrayed…

Amanda Shendruk dives deeply into the canon: “Analyzing the Gender Representation of 34,476 Comic Book Characters.”

For a(n encouraging) look beyond the borders of the DC-Marvel dupopoly, see also “Women in comics and the tricky art of equality.”

* Hippolyta, to her daughter Diana (Wonder Woman)


As we turn the page, we might recall that it was on this date in 1884, at the Savoy Theatre in London, that composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and librettist W. S. Gilbert premiered the eighth of their fourteen comic operatic collaborations, Princess Ida; or, Castle Adamant, an amusing parody of Tennyson’s “Princess.”   Though still regularly performed today, Princess Ida wasn’t considered a success in its time– at least in part because an uncommonly hot summer in 1884 kept audiences away, and shortened its run.

Hilarion, Cyril and Florian on their knees to Princess Ida, by “Bab” (W.S. Gilbert)



Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 5, 2018 at 1:01 am

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