By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
A spry, lean man, Tufte glides energetically in front of the audience, his grayish-black hair lofted up and back, making his Scotch-Irish features stand out. This evening's talk is centered on a 19th-century map, designed by the French engineer Charles Joseph Minard, showing the miserable fate of Napoleon's army in Russia in 1812. Tufte says, "It may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn." Why? Because Minard was able to depict in a simple image the brutal fate of an army of 442,000 men, just 10,000 of whom survived the retreat from Moscow through sub-zero winter temperatures. Napoleon's death march looks, in Minard's graphic, like a trunk of a felled redwood, doubled back on itself, stout and powerful at the roots, wispy and brittle at the top. Miraculously, the map shows you everything you need to know: how many men perished, where and when, and under exactly what conditions.
"Minard made the map because he hated war," Tufte tells the audience, who line the aisles and spill out onto the patio. "He was driven by a deep knowledge of the content. Quality, relevance and intensity of content," Tufte chants. "Just imagine that. A content-driven business to assist thinking. Not decoration, not technology, it is to enable people to think better."
After 20 years of staring at Minard's map, Tufte says he finally noticed something more than the data. "Something subtle is going on here: The word Napoleon does not appear on this chart. Minard's point is not to celebrate surviving celebrities, but to memorialize the dead soldiers."
This is Tufte at his pointed best. Neither information nor its visual representation is neutral. Minard's deeper message has Tufte revved up. "The best of analytical design is just as powerful, just as historically important as a one-off painting. Guernicaand Minard's map of Napoleon's march -- both of them belong in the same museum of forever anti-war art," he says with bulls-eye candor.
Toying with a fold-up pyramid he's using to demonstrate effective, economical design, Tufte remarks, somewhat boastfully, "I have a copy of Euclid's Geometryfrom 432 years ago, and the pop-up pyramid from that book can still be lifted today. Think your Web site will be able to do that?" He's just entered his warm-up on the cyber age. He begins with a one-liner. "There are only two industries that refer to their customers as users: illegal drugs and computers." The knowing in-crowd laughs. "No one in ä history who searches on a computer wants a frame," he goes on. "We want content. In some cases of corporate Web sites, the time of the average download of the opening screen is longer than the average visit. As we watch the corporate logo opening . . . 'Ooh, there's some music . . . damn, I'm out of here.'"
Under what could be a chapter heading titled "Operating System Imperialism and Icons on Steroids," Tufte points out that just 25 percent of the average computer screen is dedicated to content. "This is a scandal," he erupts. "They're stealing space." When the designers at Xerox made one of the first personal computers, Tufte says, the screen was nearly 100 percent content. "There were no applications, no advertising. It simply showed content, a little trash can and a little printer symbol. You opened only documents. There was no hint of a marketing system," which is how Tufte describes all the debris and detritus filling up screens everywhere: tools to promote the manufacturer, product placement. By contrast, computer screens at places like NASA or in an industrial setting are 100 percent content. "When analysis gets serious, all that stuff disappears. That's a big hint, isn't it?"
A few nights later, at a quiet reception in his honor at a Mar Vista house designed by Gregory Ain, Tufte is chatting with a curator from the Getty. He can't resist commenting on the directional graphics at Richard Meier's architectural masterwork. "The Getty is just festooned. All these signs everywhere in English, Spanish, Japanese. I know it's big. I know it's confusing. But what's wrong with getting lost? It's a museum: You wantto get lost." Yet further proof that Tufte, like Hemingway, believes that what you leave out is more important than what you leave in.
GATHERING OF THE SURFERS: Where's the Aloha?
FOUR SURFERS WALK INTO A COFFEE shop. The hostess begins to seat another party behind them before realizing her mistake. "That's okay," says one of the four. "In the spirit of 'aloha,' go ahead and seat them first." Two more parties wander into the restaurant and are seated while the surfers remain standing. One turns to the others: "Let a few people get by you in the lineup," he says. "And soon everybodystarts snaking your waves."
This isn't a joke, but an actual scene from Saturday's rain-swept Surfing Arts, Science and Issues Conference at Surfer's Point in Ventura (which began and ended on surfer's time -- 10 minutes late). Sharing the Holiday Inn with a chess tournament, a square dancers' convention and a gun show, SASIC presented its 100-plus attendees with paper palm trees, dioramas of reef-restoration projects, displays of vintage Hawaiian longboards and a staunch moral challenge: "Modern Surfing: Where's the Aloha?"
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