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i am a cat

The world's evaluation of an individual's social worth, like the slits in my eyeballs, change with time and circumstance. In point of fact my pupil-slits vary but modestly between broad and narrow, but mankind's value judgements turn somersaults and cartwheels for no conceivable reason. Still, now that I come to think of it, there may perhaps be sense in such peculiar topsy-turvydom. For just as there are two ends to every string, there are two sides to every question. Perhaps in its extreme adaptability mankind has found a way to make apparent oppositions come out with identical meanings. Thus, if one takes the symbols meaning "idea" and turns them upside-down, one finds oneself with the symbols meaning "plan". Charming, isn't it?

Humanity seen through the eyes of a cat, from Natsume Sōseki's novel 'I Am a Cat' (1905). From its famous opening lines - "I am a cat. As yet I have no name." - its narrator looks at Japanese society of the Meiji era with feline aloofness and velvety satire.

There is not much story to speak of in this sprawling book (it was written as a serial in a journal), but its detached observational quality is quite endearing. And just when you're soothed by the cat's lazy existence, there's a sharp claw lashing out at the follies of human society.

Here's another of the nameless cat's musings:

All studies undertaken by human beings are always studies of themselves. The proper study of mankind is self. The heavens, earth, the mountains, and the rivers, sun and moon and stars -- they are all no more than other names for the self. There is nothing a man can study which is not, in the end, the study of the self. If a man could jump out of his self that self would disappear at the moment of his jumping. Nor is that all. Only oneself can study one's self. It is totally impossible for anyone else to do it.

data stories

Recommended viewing for journalists and critical readers, the documentary 'Journalism in the Age of Data' looks at the state of the art of data visualization.

With a deluge of data available in raw digital form, and presentation software becoming more sophisticated, data visualization offers powerful ways for people to make sense of large amounts of data in a way that plain numbers don't quite manage. Potentially it is also a way to bypass, or counterbalance, the spin of politicians and lobbyists by making the sources of their claims available for public scrutiny.

Of course, the practice of data visualization, or infographics, is not new - it's probably as old as writing, from maps and genealogical trees to fullblown taxonomies of the known world. (For some beautiful examples, see these 'Victorian Infographics'.)

The difference these days is that online infographics can be a) interactive, allowing users to explore data themselves, and b) dynamic, meaning they can be based on live data. One of the most ambitious examples of the former is 'Gapminder', while many of the endless Twitter visualizations are examples of the latter.

The downside to all this is not just the great number of visualizations of trivial data (which remains just that, even when visualized), but also a whole range of possible misrepresentations. The use of logarithmic scales in financial projections may be the most notorious example, but there's a whole bag of other statistical fallacies. These are not new either (as the saying goes, there are "lies, damned lies, and statistics"), though eye candy will do a lot in obscuring them.

Which calls for statistical literacy in this emerging field, where journalism, design and programming meet, and where awesome data stories are yet to be told.

Watch 'Journalism in the Age of Data' in annotated version or plain video.

Update: Statistical literacy is at #1 of Wired's list of '7 Essential Skills' for a 21st century education.

vacant nl

Some interesting talks at This Happened Utrecht on Monday, including a presentation by Ronald Rietveld on the Dutch entry for this year's Venice Architecture Biennale, titled 'Vacant NL, where architecture meets ideas'.

Vacant NL - 1

In an installation and a book (the 'Dutch Atlas of Vacancy'), this project neatly visualizes the huge number of vacant public buildings in the Netherlands - ranging from warehouses, water towers and churches to the Radio Kootwijk building - and calls for their reuse, particularly for the creative industry. (With an irony that was not lost on the creators, the Dutch pavilion in Venice is also in this category, being used only three months a year.)

The broader context of 'Vacant NL' is to supply a vision for the necessary "spatial conditions for innovation", according to the curatorial statement (PDF). Which in turn relates to certain ambitions of the Dutch government that repeat "innovation" and "creative industry" like a mantra.

Vacant NL - 2

One weak point in this vision might be that even if all these buildings became available, laws of supply and demand would still apply, with buildings in the Randstad (where reuse is already more common) in huge demand, while buildings in rural settings would likely be more difficult to find use for.

Still, whatever ripples this project will create in the political pond, the way the issue is raised is certainly daring, and its visualization in blue foam very powerful.

Update: More pictures over at We make money not art.