What we’re reading – 11 June 2010

blogsIn the BMJ editorial office, we often come across interesting articles, blogs, and web pages. We thought we would share these with you. Some are medical, some techie, and some just general.

Tony Delamothe writes: On the trail of new thoughts on the representation of data, I thumb through two newly published books. (I think there’s a third out recently but stupidly didn’t write down its title when I heard it mentioned).

The two are:
Information is Beautiful” by David McCandless
The Art of Looking Sideways” by Alan Fletcher, founding partner of the legendary design group, Pentagram

Some of the things McCandless has chosen to illustrate are very interesting in themselves, but there are no exciting new tools on display. And he’s much drawn to using brightly coloured circles of different areas to represent magnitude. Such devices seem a step down from pie charts – of which Edward Tufte (one of McCandless’s and my heroes)  says:

“A table is nearly always better than a dumb pie chart; the only worse design than a pie chart is several of them.”

“The Art of Looking Sideways” is a galumphing great scrapbook of every quotation and idea that Fletcher encountered in his illustrious career as a designer. Its 500 plus pages are loosely – very loosely – divided up into 75 chapterettes: Paradigms, Problems, Places, Perception, Paradox, Pattern, Perfection, Perspective, Picture Play, Pictograms are just those beginning with P.  Despite thinking of myself as a pretty visual kind of guy, I was drawn to the myriad quotations. Lots of old friends are there, but there are many I hadn’t encountered before.

Here’s one from photographer Walker Evans I’ll save:
“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, and eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”

Jackie Wullschlager used the Evans quotation in her coruscating review of the current photography exhibition, Voyeurism.  – “the most disappointing show I have ever seen at the Tate Modern.”
Walker Evans’s photography was included in the exhibition, but she decried the omission of Robert Doisneau, Diane Arbus,  Andy Warhol, Robert Capa, Alexander Rodchenko and too little Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï.

There was a great (perhaps not quite the word) photograph of an empty lethal injection suite at some US penitentiary, which we’re trying to get hold of to illustrate a few Letters in next week’s BMJ on the ethics of physician assisted executions.

Not all information is beautiful, or can be made to look so. Some attempts to do so are akin to “putting lipstick on a gorilla” – to borrow from Dieter Rams, quoted by  Fletcher in his book.