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Edward Tufte Appointed To Help Track and Explain Stimulus Funds 186

Posted by Soulskill
from the authoritative-bar-graphs dept.
President Obama recently announced several appointments to the Recovery Independent Advisory Panel, including data visualization expert Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. The purpose of the panel is to advise the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, whose aim is "To promote accountability by coordinating and conducting oversight of Recovery funds to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse and to foster transparency on Recovery spending by providing the public with accurate, user-friendly information." Tufte said on his website, "I'm doing this because I like accountability and transparency, and I believe in public service. And it is the complete opposite of everything else I do. Maybe I'll learn something. The practical consequence is that I will probably go to Washington several days each month, in addition to whatever homework and phone meetings are necessary."
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Edward Tufte Appointed To Help Track and Explain Stimulus Funds

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  • Blech. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Pojut (1027544) on Monday March 08, 2010 @09:42AM (#31400478) Homepage

    "I'll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here. 'I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.' 'I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.' 'Hey, wait a minute, there's one guy holding out both puppets!'" -Bill Hicks

    • Background anyone? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by 2.7182 (819680)
      I know about this guys books, but I fail to see why he is going to be helpful.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Because this is really, really complicated and he'll be able to put it into pictures you will be able to understand.
      • by Mab_Mass (903149) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:53AM (#31401240) Homepage Journal

        I know about this guys books, but I fail to see why he is going to be helpful.

        Quite simply, he will be helpful because when he puts together a report, there will be one or two incredibly informative graphs that explain where the money went and how that money changed things.

        By having this information in such a concise, digestible form, it will help bring transparency and accountability to the government.

        One of the major issues we're having in the U.S. is that one side is saying one thing and claiming absolutely that they are right while the other side is making contradictory claims just a vocally. Getting some real, solid, hard numbers and easily understand representations of these numbers will make these kinds of useless back and forth arguments less possible.

        At least that's the theory. We'll see if he can make any difference in practice.

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          Quite simply, he will be helpful because when he puts together a report, there will be one or two incredibly informative graphs that explain where the money went and how that money changed things.

          Heck, I could paste a picture of a black hole and a type a 200 point "0" onto a Powerpoint slide as well as this guy, and I'd charge a lot less.

          By having this information in such a concise, digestible form, it will help bring transparency and accountability to the government.

          Yeah, sure it will, kiddo. Sure it will.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by gibson123 (1740752)
          Tufte is amazing. I expect he'll be able to convey in an easy to understand display what is happening w/ our recovery effort. If your a bit skeptical of him, you've got to read his books
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward
          Your assuming they'll give him real data and not just the same bullshit they feed the US public?
        • by CodeBuster (516420) on Monday March 08, 2010 @12:09PM (#31402118)

          At least that's the theory. We'll see if he can make any difference in practice.

          In practice, political operatives will maneuver behind the scenes to ensure that whatever information the commission receives is carefully selected, filtered and sanitized so that the "right" conclusions are reached. The stakes are so high in this case that it is incredibly naïve to think that there won't be skullduggery.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by PatHMV (701344)
          It's not simply one or two graphs. Hopefully, he will help steer the design of the web interface for the site itself, so that users will be able to easily find and display the data they are looking for. Much of his work is also in interface design, not merely the production of graphs and charts.
    • Re:Blech. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by anaesthetica (596507) on Monday March 08, 2010 @11:55AM (#31401934) Homepage Journal

      "Now, there's one thing you might have noticed I don't complain about: politicians. Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don't fall out of the sky. They don't pass through a membrane from another reality.

      "They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens.

      "This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It's what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out.

      "If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're going to get selfish, ignorant leaders. Term limits ain't going to do any good; you're just going to end up with a brand new bunch of selfish, ignorant Americans. So, maybe, maybe, maybe, it's not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here... like, the public. Yeah, the public sucks. There's a nice campaign slogan for somebody: 'The Public Sucks. Fuck Hope.'" —George Carlin

      link [youtube.com]

  • Academics (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Hatta (162192) on Monday March 08, 2010 @09:46AM (#31400504) Journal

    Just another feel good appointment of an academic to a position where they can't really do anything. Meanwhile Obama staffs his cabinet with wall street insiders. If Obama really wants transparency and accountability, he should fire Geithner and replace him with Elizabeth Warren. But no, he won't do that.

    • Re:Academics (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 08, 2010 @09:54AM (#31400566)

      It's also inexcusable that billions upon billions of dollars were given out without anything in place to track where that money was ending up. It's only after the fact that they consider such accounting?

      A mere $10,000 student loan has greater financial controls in place than the stimulus funding.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        You're confusing TARP and the Stimulus.

        • Re:Academics (Score:4, Insightful)

          by khallow (566160) on Monday March 08, 2010 @12:42PM (#31402602)

          You're confusing TARP and the Stimulus.

          Maybe he's confusing them with Cash for Clunkers. I can't remember which program was the one without accountability. They all look so much alike in that regard.

          • by skids (119237)

            While we're at it we could add defense contracts... cost-plus "burn pits" anyone? I'll bring the marshmallows. Don't mind the CN.

    • Re:Academics (Score:5, Interesting)

      by vlm (69642) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:07AM (#31400678)

      he should fire Geithner and replace him with Elizabeth Warren. But no, he won't do that.

      Warren? Well, anyone would be an improvement. Wouldn't Ron Paul be better? As treasury secretary, his peculiar opinions about abortion would be about as important as Tom Cruise's insights about foreign policy, i.e. quaintly irrelevant to the task at hand. Would be a nice last job for a smart old man (I mean RP not Cruise)

      • Re:Academics (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ottothecow (600101) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:28AM (#31400968) Homepage
        Right, because the best choice would be someone who seriously believes that replacing our arbitrarily valued currency with vaults full of arbitrarily valued metal will fix everything wrong with our economy.
        • Re:Academics (Score:5, Insightful)

          by ArsonSmith (13997) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:40AM (#31401096) Journal

          I don't think he ever once said it would fix everything. It would seriously help though to have it based on something that the supply isn't as easily gained as hitting a print button.

          • Re:Academics (Score:4, Informative)

            by jfengel (409917) on Monday March 08, 2010 @11:58AM (#31401968) Homepage Journal

            I don't think Ron Paul expects to end paper currency. Nor does he think that's the problem. He knows that only a tiny fraction of the money will ever be in the form of paper.

            The problem, he believes, is that the currency is ultimately backed by nothing more than a government's promise to limit its availability. Printing the actual paper bills is chump change. Inventing more money is even easier than that: they just enter a number in a computer.

            It's not the computers themselves he sees as the problem, but rather that the accounting rules make the total arbitrary under certain circumstances. He wants to make that impossible by fixing it to a quantity which is relatively fixed: a rare metal.

            Unfortunately, that doesn't really solve the problem. For one thing, as long as there is paper currency, checks, and bank payments, rather than actual bits of gold, there's no way to enforce it. The government can set the exchange rate any way it likes. You can limit that by law, but then, you could do the same for the numbers entered into the computers.

            And truly fixing the value of the currency slows the economy drastically. Fractional-reserve banking puts more money in circulation than there is backing for, but as long as that money is invested in things that turn a profit (in sum), it gets paid back and you have real economic improvements to show for it. Without it, those improvements happen far more slowly, and other countries out-compete us.

            It leads to booms and busts, but those happen anyway. We saw that even when we were on a gold standard. We were on the gold standard going into the Great Depression. Breaking off the gold standard allows the big banks the flexibility to try to solve such crises, using the tools I just mentioned: fractional-reserve banking multiplying money until the crisis of confidence ends and productivity returns to pre-bust levels.

            And what institution managed that? The Federal Reserve, another institution Paul despises. Paul is not a stupid man, but if he imagines that the economy was free of the boom-bust cycle before the invention of the Federal Reserve, he's simply missing history.

            We may need a new solution, but the old solutions have already been disproven. That's why the Fed was created in the first place.

            • And what institution managed that? The Federal Reserve, another institution Paul despises. Paul is not a stupid man, but if he imagines that the economy was free of the boom-bust cycle before the invention of the Federal Reserve, he's simply missing history. We may need a new solution, but the old solutions have already been disproven. That's why the Fed was created in the first place.

              The issue isn't that we have an imperfect solution to the problem, it's that the imperfect solution has been degraded by co

              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by jfengel (409917)

                Right now, they (unelected) are effectively controlling government (elected) when it should be the other way around.

                The Board of Governors is appointed in precisely the way the Supreme Court is appointed.

                The member banks are privately owned. I thought that private ownership was precisely what Paul would want. But as private institutions they're even less accountable than government ones.

          • Dollars are just buckets for wealth. When people sell off stocks en masse, you need more buckets (dollars) to catch all the wealth they pump out of them.

            Imagine if buckets were made of gold. They wouldn't be much help in a flood because people would hoard them instead of using them. When that happens to dollars it's called deflation and it has a nasty effect on an economy.

            But anyway, I believe we were talking about Treasury Secretary not Fed chairman. Ron Paul as Sec. Treasury would probably have a differen

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by nedlohs (1335013)

          Because requiring some discipline on spending by not allowing the printing of arbitrary amounts of money would be such a bad thing...

          And of course that isn't the only thing he has suggested and certainly wasn't proclaimed as an instant fix

          Finally, the "arbitrary value" of the metal is completely irrelevant. It doesn't have to be worth anything - it just has to of limited supply. Clearly people don't care if there's nothing backing their currency so the value part is irrelevant. All that matters is the "can'

        • by Dishevel (1105119) *
          The value of Gold (Being a rare and very useful element) is not arbitrary.

          Making the rest of your statement pointless.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Jeremy Erwin (2054)

            The intrinsic value of gold is inflated by the arbitrary value that goldbugs like to place on it.

        • by bmajik (96670)

          Actually, if you look at the bills he introduces, you could most accurately say that he beleives:

          If you want to conduct your affairs in something other than Federal Reserve Notes, you shouldn't be raided by the Secret Service and have all of your assets confiscated.

          [i.e. "allow competing currencies"].

          He advocates free-market money; let people decide what they want to use as a medium of exchange and a store of value. And history shows that gold or other precious metals are the most common market-derived sol

      • Re:Academics (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Hatta (162192) on Monday March 08, 2010 @11:05AM (#31401370) Journal

        I think someone in favor of more regulation and not less would be best for the job.

    • by vlm (69642)

      Just another feel good appointment of an academic to a position where they can't really do anything.

      Bruce Schneier newly appointed as Secretary of the US department of Homeland (in)Security? That would be change I could believe in. Maybe in the second term, if he somehow gets 51% of the votes.

    • Re:Academics (Score:5, Interesting)

      by raju1kabir (251972) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:19AM (#31400836) Homepage

      Just another feel good appointment of an academic to a position where they can't really do anything.

      I took a grad school seminar with him at Yale. The man is loopy, but he has a truly powerful brain. He comes up with ways of looking at problems that are like time bombs. First you think he's a crackpot - how could anyone propose something so ridiculous? Then a few days later, it's been stewing in the back of your head, and your mindly slowly blows as you realise just how much cleverer it is than anything you've heard before. Simply putting him near anything involving information is almost guaranteed to make it better somehow.

    • Re:Academics (Score:4, Interesting)

      by hazem (472289) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:57AM (#31401294) Journal

      Just another feel good appointment of an academic to a position where they can't really do anything

      Yeah, I just don't see what good it would be to have someone who's known for being able to deal with large amounts of complex information and present it in easy-to-understand ways... especially an academic. I mean, just look at what horrible failure it was to have that academic Richard Feynman on the committee studying the Challenger explosion. Those ivory tower types just have no grasp on how things really work.

      So, clearly you don't like Obama or Tufte... who do YOU recommend be put on this committee? And if you don't think the committee should exist, what do you suggest for better tracking and visibility of the stimulus funds?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Hatta (162192)

        Oh you misunderstand me. I wish more (many more) academics were appointed to positions of power. I just don't think this is a position of power. You can say that you're for openness, transparency, etc. and get the political benefits without really changing anything by appointing these guys to commissions that have no real power.

        Look at what Elizabeth Warren has been doing. She has been blowing the whistle constantly for the past couple years. She's been entirely ignored. What reason do i have to beli

  • by KnownIssues (1612961) on Monday March 08, 2010 @09:48AM (#31400514)
    Seriously though, I'm an Edward Tufte fun myself, but his statement, "And it is the complete opposite of everything else I do," is kind of funny. I know he didn't mean it literally. "Yeah my car's not working, so I hired a painter to fix it."
  • tufte has it easy (Score:4, Interesting)

    just take one of the most famous graphs from his book, and reproduce it:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Featured_picture_candidates/Napoleon's_Invasion_of_Russia [wikipedia.org]

    relabel the advancing french soldiers "good intentions for accountable government"

    relabel the retreating french soldiers "obfuscation by entrenched special interests"

    job done

  • Mercy me... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MaggieL (10193) on Monday March 08, 2010 @09:57AM (#31400600)

    This should be - v e r y - interesting indeed.

    I have enormous respect for Tufte and his integrity. I can;t wait to see what happens.

    Remember, this is the guy who put Stalin on the cover of his pamphlet on "The Cognitive Style Of Powerpoint" [edwardtufte.com]

    I'm reminded of Feynman on the Columbia commission.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by BadAnalogyGuy (945258)

      I'm reminded of Feynman on the Columbia commission.

      Always assume Isaac Newton-level political ability until proven otherwise.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Xtravar (725372)
      He's a socialist! He worships Stalin! Obama is ruining the United States once again! </FoxNews>
    • This should be - v e r y - interesting indeed. [snicker snack] Remember, this is the guy who put Stalin on the cover of his pamphlet

      Wow. Is that what teh kids consider - e d g y - these days?

  • by Stumbles (602007) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:10AM (#31400702)
    It should be called the Recovery Advisory Panel Enhancement
  • Tufte scandal (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jodka (520060) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:12AM (#31400746)

    I own his books and recommend them but it seems Tufte is difficult to deal with in person. He charged credit cards for pre-orders before shipping his not-yet-published book and then called someone who politely objected to that a "whiny sanctimonious asshole."

    See Flip Philips' blog entry about the scandal here [skidmore.edu]

    • Re:Tufte scandal (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Abcd1234 (188840) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:47AM (#31401176) Homepage

      Err... so? He could be the biggest asshole in the world for all I care, so long as he does a good job and injects some accountability and transparency into the process.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by SharpFang (651121)

        I'm betting him being a big asshole is essential to the success of the project. Because things he's going to reveal are not nice at all, and a nice guy might try to obscure, whitewash and soften them. Only a real asshole will show them in all drastic gory glory they deserve...

      • so long as he does a good job and injects some accountability and transparency into the process.

        Tufte isn't being hired to inject accountability and transparency into the process, he's being hired because he's somewhat of a media darling. All he can do is produce very pretty guaranteed-to-be-popular (among certain demographics) visual representation of whatever data he is given. If the data is garbage, then his graphs will be pretty, clear, and convey the data in an understandable fashion but will be utte

    • by kenh (9056)

      scandal

      Really, a scandal? From your description it could just as easily be that Flip Philips acted like a "whiny sanctimonious asshole" on the phone when asking about charging his CC before shipping the book. I wonder if Flip made a point of reporting on this grave injustice since using Tufte's name would likely drive traffic from google and other search engines to his little blog at Skidmore...

    • Whether it makes him a jerk or not, it does reveal that he likes getting his money as soon as possible, even before the book was ready to ship. That's not a trait I like to see in someone in his position.
  • by Big_Monkey_Bird (620459) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:17AM (#31400802)
    So, no Power Point presentation?
  • by tjstork (137384) <todd...bandrowsky@@@gmail...com> on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:18AM (#31400816) Homepage Journal

    The stimulus is a dead issue. GOP won the round. Considering Bush essentially ran .5 stimuluses a year in deficits for 6 years and then capped it off with a stimuluses worth of bailouts for banks, its rather remarkable that the GOP could do so, but they did.

    Trying to keep refighting the stimulus battle is just bad politics...

    Obama ought to be a good enough fighter to know that and move on. His best hope for 2010 is to get the troops out of Iraq and declare an epic victory, then use the mantle of victory to take his case before the people.

    • by Uberbah (647458)

      The stimulus is a dead issue. GOP won the round.

      How, by taking credit [youtube.com] for stimulus money after having voted/opposed it, like Republican Governors and Congressmen and Senators? Like Bobby Jindal, who trashed stimulus spending in his response to Obama's SOTU speech...only to make a big show [photobucket.com] of handing out giant sized, Jindal-signed checks to programs funded with stimulus money?

      Obama ought to be a good enough fighter to know that and move on.

      One of the memes floated by the Obama fanboys [dailykos.com] is that he throws "rop

  • by brennz (715237) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:18AM (#31400820)
    Whatever they produce will contain pretty graphs.
    • by localman57 (1340533) on Monday March 08, 2010 @11:30AM (#31401660)
      No, it won't. Tufte's whole point is that the focus should be on the data, and that anything that doesn't contribute to understanding ("chart junk") should be dropped. It may well contain elegant graphs, though. The other thing you can count on is that Tufte won't let them pull dirty tricks, such as using log scales, charts with a y axis other than 0, non-propotional areas, etc.

      I'd reccomend both his books and his seminar to anyone, by the way. You'll never look at another graph or powerpoint wihtout critiqeing it.
  • Didn't this horse already leave the barn?

  • Dumb question (Score:5, Interesting)

    by IWantMoreSpamPlease (571972) on Monday March 08, 2010 @10:25AM (#31400922) Homepage Journal

    Shouldn't this post have been created first, *before* the gov't let loose billions of our taxpayer dollars, seems once in the wild, tracking that cash is going to be difficult.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Sockatume (732728)

      If only we could radio-label bailout cash. It would assist in tracking, and act as a self-interest disincentive for it to be stockpiled in executive bonuses.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ianare (1132971)

      It was the previous administration that started giving out the money. Since they had nothing but contempt for any kind of tracking or accountability (see : e-mail fiasco), there's no surprise there.

      • by khallow (566160)

        It was the previous administration that started giving out the money.

        Bush did it first so it must be correct and proper?

    • "Shouldn't this post have been created first, *before* the gov't let loose billions of our taxpayer dollars, seems once in the wild, tracking that cash is going to be difficult."

      That would imply the stimulus wasn't *designed* to work like a giant slush fund.

  • Efficiency (Score:2, Informative)

    by Pete Venkman (1659965)

    Wouldn't it be more efficient to keep up with where the money goes AS IT GOES OUT THE DOOR? The way this panel is doing it now is just a waste of even more resources, and it provides a little time for the recipients to come up with some more BS to explain why all their execs needed multi-million dollar bonuses for running their companies into the ground.

  • Not for long! (Score:2, Insightful)

    Yes, I trust Tufte will do an admirable job of rendering such information clear and concise. The truth will be unassailable.

    At which point the Obama will realize that the waste and futility of the "stimulus package[s]" will be crystal-clear to voters, the graphs & explanations will be suppressed, and Tufte quietly shown the door.

    Wrong guy for the job. Tufte and Chicago-way politics is like oil and water.

  • The whole lot of it is fraud and waste perpetrated by politicians on the tax paying public. My bill is in the mail.
  • Apply spark lines for every federal department?


    I'm sure if he did that, that the lines would all go "downward"--which is something we already know.



    Remember Metcalf...
  • simple task (Score:3, Funny)

    by TheSHAD0W (258774) on Monday March 08, 2010 @05:09PM (#31406294) Homepage

    I don't see why they need to hire such an illustrious researcher for such a simple task. I've prepared an accurate IMO data visualization of the results of the Federal stimulus spending. It can be viewed at:

    http://shambala.net/stimulusvisualization.jpg [shambala.net]

Optimization hinders evolution.

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