Uncommunicative action

I’ve a long track record of being dressed funny. My mother enjoyed trussing me in earthy corduroy, tight dungarees, and cotton prints and, although I atoned by wearing nothing but black polyester for six adolescent months, I still feel that my mum’s fashion experiments are responsible for my vulnerability to the Green Party, and my fondness for herbal tea.

Today I had a bit of a flashback. I was at a protest at the Berkeley Commencement, in support of Prof Ignacio Chapela, and in condemnation of the University Chancellor. Ignacio has been a professor of soil biology at Berkeley for eight years, and was up, last year, for tenure. His case is unimpeachable. His department wants him. External reviewers admire him. His students think he’s great. He’s a great educator, academic and activist. There’s a problem, though. Like many of his colleagues, Ignacio has been troubled by the encroachment of large corporate interests, particularly biotechnology interests, onto the Berkeley campus. Unlike many of his colleagues, he has spoken out about it. Nothing but external pressure from the likes of Novartis (‘partner’ in a $25m agreement with Berkeley), and a particularly craven Chancellor, Robert Berdahl, can explain the track of this very odd tenure decision. There’s more on this here and here.

Back to fashion, though. At the protest, I found myself wearing an Edward Tuftian nightmare. Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is, incidentally, required reading for anyone with eyes. One of Tufte’s main concerns is the withering of our collective visual imagination, a demise that has been expedited by Microsoft’s instant-eye-candy-generating software. In fairness, this isn’t the fault of Bill Gates – one could hardly credit him with the innovation. I remember Harvard Graphics being one of the first bits of software to take the intelligence out of data presentation. Microsoft just copied the idea and crippled the company. And the issue of crappy representation isn’t a problem limited to Powerpoint; it’s endemic to any software that encourages the assumption that the ease with which visual information can be generated translates into a similar ease with which the information will be digested.

Point is, though, that I was wearing a spreadsheet.

Or rather, a spreadsheet and a graph, on a large, person-sized sandwich board. On one side, a list of dates at which different tenure letters were sent, and whether they were supportive (most were) of Ignacio’s tenure. On the other side of the sandwich board was a graph subdivided into categories of folk who approved or disapproved of Ignacio’s tenure. You couldn’t see exactly what it all meant, and there wasn’t space to put a legend on the sandwichboard, so you had to ask the person wearing it, me, what each shade of grey stood for.

As it happens, I was wearing a paper bag over my head, with a picture of the chancellor on it. There were small cutouts for eyeholes, which proved useful in avoiding bumping into things. The absence of a mouth-hole, however, meant that questions about what the graph meant were met with a helpful “mmm, fmmmmefrrr” sound from the effigy of Robert Berdahl.

The protesters inside the Commencement ceremony had a better time of it. They managed to embarrass the Chancellor, hand out a good many ‘re-wired’ commencement programs, and garnered a bit of media attention too.