Summary of the Sole Writers SIG Meeting

Held December 7, 1998 The work of Edward Tufte

Homework Results and an Anecdote

This summary contains a story from my trip to California, which spawned the idea for our November/December homework. Here is a summary of the assignment:

"Accuracy" is one of this year's themes. Urban myths and fictitious viruses are examples of influencial data that lacks accuracy. As an introductory exercise, we randomly chose a statistic, and then verified its accuracy.

Consider the size of several states in the USA:

Is it reasonable to expect several reference sources to agree on the square mileage of each state? Might reputable sources disagree? Is there room for debate?

Guess the answers to the following questions:

Here is the summary of results for the assignment:

This exercise evolved from a dinner conversation at a trendy restaurant called Zibibbo's near Stanford University in California. The architecture of the building was wonderful: ten foot high sliding glass walls opening onto a dining patio during the warm months, and closing for warmth during cold months. At our meal, the walls were open and the exterior and interior were joined as one.

We talked about travel and distances, and how long, for example, it takes to drive across a particular state. Massachusetts you can drive across in hours, but driving the length of states like Florida and California seems like days.

I told the story of planning my arrival on the West Coast, which I'd initially planned as a drive. Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassady, and Ken Kesey were heroes of mine for many years, and in a fashion they still are. After trial runs of 600 miles to Maine, and then 1,000 miles to Michigan and back, I reassessed the journey. If New York State looked so small on a map, but seemed so long on the road, did I want to spend so much time driving? My answer was "no". Time would better be invested in reading books at home, on airplanes, and on trains. The drive across America would have to wait.

There were six of us seated in the fancy Zibibbo dining room with its exterior spaces fitting inside interior spaces, and the question was posed: Just how big are these states? We agreed on the order of increasing size: MA, NY, FL, and CA. But no one knew the actual sizes.

The next morning, I sat in my step-daughter's plush, oversized chair with a bright sun illuminating my reading. "Indoors, outdoors..." I mulled as I looked out to Alcatraz Island across the bay. "Inside, outside..." The dinner conversation returned with a vengence. A struggle against my lazy knowledge of the world compelled me to answer our questions factually and authoritatively.

The questions are not earth shattering. Chalk this lesson to the joy of learning, the interplay of fact and fiction, and the frequent division between what we know and what we think we know.

At the December meeting, we compared our results. First, volunteers who had not performed the exercise guessed the relative sizes of the states. Then we looked over our results:

Here are results the American Heritage Dictionary on my step-daughter's bookshelf and the Webster’s Random House College Dictionary (1991) that sits in my office. Both sources agree.

State Size Number that would fit...
MA 8,257 7.09 would fit in Florida
NY 49,576 1.18 would fit in Florida
FL 58,560
CA 158,693 0.37 would fit in Florida
2.71 Floridas would fit in California

We hypothesized that dictionaries and the like harvest their technical information from the same source, perhaps a governmental agency. This would explain the uniformity of numbers down to the single square mile. How did the Almanac go wrong? We leave the answer to another day.


© 1999 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Last Modified July 12, 1999