The Overton Window and Glenn Beck:Pot. Kettle. Black.

Overton WindowI have previously blogged about the Overton Window, which describes the boundaries of public discourse and offers a rhetorical technique in which think tanks, pundits, talking heads, and hired advocates can shift the range of acceptable public discussion by communicating radical, extreme perspectives that make their client's objective seem relatively normal.

In a world where the cost of being a publisher approaches zero, the Overton Window is increasingly available to a wider sphere, and all sorts of people are getting in to it. Of course, if radical, extreme perspectives are exerted on both sides of the spectrum, the central window remains in the same place while the tone of the discourse moves outside of the traditionally acceptable range.

I have enjoyed knowing about the Overton Window because it helps me to understand the rhetoric of American discussion (on both/many sides of the aisle) and also because, frankly, it's a niche knowledge and it's kind of cool to be in on the story. It's sort of like the Sullivan Nod - once you know about it you see it all around, and it's not widely known.

The phrase Overton Window is about to have its fifteen minutes of fame, as it is the title of Glenn Beck's new collection of words (to call it a novel is to condemn authors everywhere).

(Also, allow me to point out that there is no link to Beck's product on this blog; you'll have to search for the sordid tome yourself. No help here.)

Glenn Beck, a huckster, shill, and entertainer of a quality perhaps not seen since Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker left the public spectrum, is certainly a practitioner of the Overton Window within his audience - his polemics and phillipics make almost anything else seem reasonable.

The problem with Beck's use of the Overton Window is that the technique is only profitable if you're communicating to the full audience - in other words, it only works if his proposals and utterances are widely conveyed to the people who disagree with him. If a practitioner uses the Overton technique exclusively with the people who already agree with their agenda, all that results is increased polarization, radicalization, and fanaticism.

There's a reason we use "preaching to the choir" as a pejorative phrase.
  • It increases identification.
  • It suggests alignment.
  • It doesn't change the real-world situation.
  • It eventually turns the choir into militants and harridans.
Here's the problem, visually. You have a single population (the United States) drawn in red, and the Overton Window of acceptable public discourse shown in grey. The objective of the (marketer, consultant, propagandist) is to get the peak to skew to the right/left by delivering relatively extreme messages on that side of the spectrum, having the effect of making the desired change seem reasonable.

But if the (marketers, consultants, propagandists) of both sides only speak to their own consituency, the one population splits into two populations, which each skew according to their preferences. As the two distributions diverge, the average remains the same, and the Overton Window stays in place, but very few people are in it - most people move outside of the range of civic discourse.

It's wonderful that the Overton concept is going to gain awareness among the American public. It's awful that it's going to be explained to some by this hack's spin. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which carries on Joe Overton's work, is going to use the notoriety as an opportunity to improve the public's understanding of the concept.

See also:
Daily Kos
Open The Future : The Overton Window
EJ Dionne: Rush and Newt Are Moving the Window
israel's Overton Window
Overton, Clinton, and Krugman
Intro to the Overton Window
Overton Window, Bush's Apostasy & Wizard's Complaint
Overton Windows at Mercury Rising
Theocracy and the Religious Overton Window
Daily Kos: More on Overton Windows
Richard Dawkins and a non-linear Overton Window

The Mythical Man-Month

From Thursday's Dilbert:

One of the Great Geek Truths is the concept of The Mythical Man-Month, which is named after the book of the same title. Although written as a guide to software engineering, it has implications for all collaboration and knowledge projects. The myth is that adding people to a project makes it go faster, when it fact it has the opposite effect.

Here's a visual: how many connections can occur between various numbers of telephones?

Author Fred Brooks' primary claim, since called Brooks' Law, was that adding people to collaborative projects would always make the project later. This was due to:
  • time to get the new people up to speed
  • communication overheads increase exponentially with the number of people

To elaborate on the point, here's a table of the number of people in the project, and the number of possible communications connections between those people.
# people#connections

Let's say you're running a project with a total of 5 people. To keep everybody involved, you have to support up to 10 channels of communication. Your project misses a few milestones, and your boss wants to help so they add 5 more people to your project.

They've just condemned you to failure. In order to maintain communications between 10 people, now you need to support up to 45 channels of communication. Your project is doomed, and your people will recognize it as a death march.

Want to know why large groups don't work? Because they can't, due to the number of channels. Their only hope is to constrain the number of internal connections, usually by forming committees with focal points authorized to communicate. I'm not surprised when Congress fails to act; I'm amazed that it acts at all.

Brooks' Law only involves collaborative efforts, in which additional people (nodes) increase complexity exponentially. In contrast, most non-collaborative work is linear. If 1 workman can dig a three foot deep trench 10 feet long in 8 hours, then 10 workmen (working in parallel) can dig 100 feet of trench in 8 hours.

Sometimes Fred Brook's insight applies to physical projects as well as to intellectual or social projects. He famously said, "it takes nine months to make a baby, no matter how many women you put on the project". The reason childbearing does not scale in a linear manner is that gestation is a sequential process, whose stages cannot run in parallel.

Fred Brook's Mythical Man-Monthis one of three books that I own multiple copies of, and at any given time I've usually got all but one lent out. The other two are Effective Cycling(because of his emphasis on vehicular cycling) and Rashomon and Other Stories(because it contains the short story "In A Grove").

Dilbert, Death March, Ditch Digging. It is a good day to be a geek.
#1 Cochran
I was reading an article on the evils of PowerPoint in the NY Times today when I saw a sidebar advertising an article about Ben Roethlisberger. This is how bad The Ben's status is: you can find articles about him while you're not even looking for them.

I recommend you go here to read Timothy Egan's treatise, but let me tease you with a few key paragraphs:

..."Is there anything creepier than a big, beer-breathed celebrity athlete exposing himself in a night club and hitting on underage girls, all the while protected by an entourage of off-duty cops? Well, yes. It’s the big, corporate sponsor — Nike, in this case — that continues trying to sell product with the creep as their role model."

..."If this guy didn’t have a pair of Super Bowl Rings and a $102 million contract to entertain us on Sundays, most people would see him for what he is: a thug with a predatory sense of entitlement."

..."At the company headquarters in Oregon, Nike helps obscure female athletes train and find a community of equally motivated women. That’s one message from Nike. The other is: It’s O.K. for a buffoon of a man to disrespect women, so long as he continues to throw a football well."

#1 Cochran also sponsors Roethlisberger

#1 CochranTo say nothing of #1 Cochran and Big Ben Pittsburgh's #1 Cochran also sponsors Big Ben.

#1 Cochran

I was pleasantly surprised to see on their website that #1 Cochran has won the Pittsburgh 2010 Business Ethics Award:
#1 Cochran Ethics Award

The award, given to #1 Cochran in the medium-size company category, is presented to honor local companies that demonstrate a firm commitment to ethical business practices.

Kind of funny when you consider the company they keep.

Misleading Charts: Science in Pittsburgh Schools

My pet peeve as a chart geek is misleading charts, and the most galling of these is caused by three-dimensional presentations of one-dimensional variables. Although well-intentioned, and recognizing that people are led to this offense through enabling software, the tendency to use PizZaz in Presentations results in misinformation and obfuscation.

I am led to this chartwise anal-retentiveness by Edward Tufte, who says that if you want to communicate clearly, you should study obfuscation and misdirection.

I was reading Infinonymous today and saw a chart from the City Paper, purporting to communicate the percentage of students at some Pittsburgh high schools who perform satisfactorily in science:

This chart, ostensibly intended to rapidly and easily inform the reader, misleads in many ways. Tufte would consider it an exercise in chartjunk.

First, let's talk about the use of colors. Here's a copy of the image with the numbers removed.

How do the colors influence you? Are they in a spectrum? If I were to describe the colors (Occidentally), I'd probably say:

And so, reading/scanning left-to-right (as we do), I'd say that there is a progression, and that the blue must be even better than the green. That conveys that 37% is a good score; I'm not so sure it is. There's no justification presented to make it a good score.

How does the fullness of the container influence you? I'd suggest that these values are intimated by the container's relative fullness:

The "fullness" of the right-hand bottle, for instance, suggests an accomplishment other than 37%. They're almost "all the way"! Surely the Allderdice score is not meant as the measure of maximum performance. (In fact, it's less than the state average value.)

What's with the scales on the lab flasks? We've already discussed this visually, but aren't percentages measured from 0 to 100, not 0 to 40?

What's with the linear scales on the flasks? Doesn't one inch of fluid at the bottom of the flask contain a lot more fluid than an inch at the top of the flask? What kind of flask is that, anyway?

That's an Erlenmeyer flask, thank you very much, and an inch at the bottom is a lot more volume than an inch at the top. In fact, here's a photo of the scale on the side of an accurate Erlenmeyer flask, and you can see that it's a logarithmic scale. The distance on the scale between 0 and 200ml is much different than the distance on the scale between 300 and 500ml.

The scales used in this graphic are completely misleading.

Here's the information in a table:
% of students Proficient or Better in science
WestinghousePeabodyPerryBrashearDistrict Avg.Allderdice

Here's a way to present the information graphically:
% of students Proficient or Better in science
District Avg.20.2

One problem with the above depiction is that visually, it looks like Allerdice is doing pretty well. Here's a way to present the information with a bit of context, by showing their percentage values in the context of 100 units:

% of students Proficient or Better in science
District Avg.20.2

The City Paper text contains an interesting datapoint: the overall Pittsburgh percentage is 20%, and Pennsylvania statewide is at 40%. That's a bit of context which would have been great at the top of the article. There's more info that I'd love to see. I'd love to see a chart or table that puts the Pittsburgh data into perspective.
  • How does Pittsburgh rate among systems in other cities with the same number of students?
  • How do Pittsburgh public schools rate against Pittsburgh Catholic schools?
  • How does Pittsburgh compare to systems that spend the same amount (per pupil) as Pittsburgh does?
Data like that in tables and accurate charts would truly be informative.
(edit: snarky exaggerated comment removed)

If this is the way the school system and the newspapers communicate data, it's no wonder that only 20% of 11th-grade students are proficient-or-better in science.
One of the best examples of symbiosis that I'm aware of is the entertainment industry and American culture. The entertainers start off describing culture, and often end up contributing to and defining it. For instance, from The Soprano's we get the phrase "Disrespecting the Bing".

Without restating the entire oeuvre of pathology, in the TV show a mobster is obligated to apologize for egregious behavior (beating to death a woman pregnant with his child, and leaving the body for others to dispose of) but cannot bring himself to broach the toxic topic. Instead he apologizes for a shallow wisp of an irrelevant slight: he has disrespected the implicit protocol of the bar (The Bada-Bing) that they hang around in. He killed the girl, but he apologizes for "disrespecting the Bing".
Bada Bing Ben Roethlisberger

From Slate's Timothy Noah:
... when you say you disrespected the Bing, you are pleading guilty to the lesser offense. ... Whereas {a} pseudoapology is served up to avoid giving in to an unreasonable demand, the "I disrespected the Bing" gambit is served up to avoid pleading guilty to committing a much larger and very real moral transgression.

If I borrow your car and then total it, I disrespect the Bing if all I say afterwards is that I'm sorry I didn't get it back to you as quickly as I'd promised. If I spray-paint an obscenity on the wall of a public school, I disrespect the Bing if I apologize for misspelling it. And so on.

As you can see, the phrase is much subtler than The Godfather's signature mob phrase, "give him an offer he can't refuse." It is also more nihilistic. It suggests that we live in a world where you can get away with a big wrong if you remember to apologize for all the trivial ones.

Let's look at Ben's statement, from the P-G:
"The commissioner's decision to suspend me speaks clearly that more is expected of me," the statement said. "I am accountable for the consequences of my actions. Though I have committed no crime, I regret that I have fallen short of the values instilled in me by my family. I will not appeal the suspension and will comply with what is asked of me -- and more.

"Missing games will be devastating for me. I am sorry to let down my teammates and the entire Steelers fan base. I am disappointed that I have reached this point and will not put myself in this situation again.

"I appreciate the opportunities that I have been given in my life and will make the necessary improvements."
Let's look, again, at what Ben said he was sorry for:
I am sorry to let down my teammates and the entire Steelers fan base.

Wow. Ben didn't do anything terrible; he just let down the fans. That could happen.

Buried in the eighth paragraph are the tawdry details:
Mr. Roethlisberger, 28, was accused by a 20-year-old college student of sexually assaulting her in the bathroom of a nightclub while he was bar-hopping last month in Milledgeville, Ga. The district attorney there, however, announced he would not press charges because there was not enough evidence to prove that a crime was committed.

Accused "by a 20-year-old college student of sexually assaulting her"
Apologized for "letting down the fan base".
First art imitates life, and then life imitates art.

Also: a respectful shoutout to Infinonymous, who writes one heck of a blog.


It’s been a fun day and it's only half over.

I went to Shellharbour Square to get a few things as we are going on a holiday.  I also wanted a recharge for my mobile broadband.  The Telstra store was pretty busy and I went up to the cashier’s desk where two other old farts like me were waiting.  There was no one behind the counter.

“I know why no one is serving you two blokes” I said.  That got a response from the other blokes, and before they could answer I said, “Because you are both so ugly.  Now I’m here we’ll get served straight away!”
I didn’t hear their response, you should know by now that I am deaf and my hearing aids went through the washing machine and only one works, so I can’t use them.  But I digress.

Suddenly a blonde lady arrived and started serving us.  She apologised for the wait and said they are having problems with their gear and they have no cash register and other stuff that I didn’t quite catch.  The first guy wanted to be shown how to use email on his mobile.  The lady joked, “OK, you can wait....” and we all had a laugh.  She then asked the gentleman if he had an email account.  He didn’t seem to understand, maybe he left his hearing aids at home too.  He said that’s what he wanted help with and as she was trying to explain that he needed to set up an email account first he had enough and said he was going around to Optus as he was sick of dealing with dickheads. 

I hope he wasn’t referring to me.  It usually takes half an hour before people realise that I am a dickhead and we had only been sharing a relationship in the Telstra shop for 5 minutes.  Maybe I’m losing it.

The next guy wanted to recharge his mobile phone.  The lady seemed unaffected by the other guy walking off, maybe she gets called dickhead a lot.  I know I do, and it doesn’t affect me either.  She apologised for some systems problems, printed out the voucher thingo for the mobile phone; and handed it to the second ugly guy.  He then asked if she would fix it up for him right there and then.  
As she was waiting on the phone setting up the recharge for ugly #2 she asked what I wanted.  “ I want to recharge my mobile broadband account.”
"Do you know all about this stuff?" Asked #2 ugly guy.
“I have to have a working email account because of all the chicks that are after me because of my good looks, otherwise they get really disappointed and pissed off.” I replied.
“I have the same problem only it’s with my phone”, said ugly#2 with a wink.   

Then it was off to home to set up the computer on the mobile broadband.

You know what happened next – it didn’t work. 

The voucher says to ring 125 8888 if you have any problems.  Don’t believe it, the number is really 125 8880 as I found out after waiting and talking to machines on the phone.  The last digit on the voucher is definitely an ‘8’.  I wonder what numbner Optus is.

I rang the Telstra Bigpond number...... if you haven’t got another spare 5 minutes for me to relate to you the next sequence of events, you may as well stop reading now.....   

I got the automated guy.  I didn’t quite get that  I think his name is.  Yelling doesn’t help.  Then I got Bob.  I poured out my problems to him about all my Telstra accounts and what I was trying to achieve.  He listened patiently and said, “I’ll have to transfer you.”


I spoke to John.   

I pointed out to John (I don’t think that was his real name)  I was pretty well agitated and quickly reeled off my problem.  He calmly asked my full name, date of birth and I usually include “bacon and eggs’ before they ask me what I had for breakfast.  He asked for my “Recharge Authority Number” (it’s 594601620574)  I gave it to him in a sequence of three digits at a time, as per Army training ... 594 601 620 574.  He responded in a sequence of 4 digits ...5946 0162 0574...which meant I had to recheck again.  Don’t you just hate that?

The system now works.

I could say more, but by now I guess I’ve lost all you readers because NO BASTARD REALLY CARES ANYWAY.
Some things you just can't make up.

I was wondering, does The Ben have a blog? Turns out he has a few. An early Ben Blog is It looks like a very nice blog.

That early blog explains that he's moved to a more professional site, Just in case that web server goes awry, the masthead looks like this:

Where does one begin? With the advertising, of course. I saw this image (to the right) on and clicked on it. Boy, I bet those guys at #1 Cochran are real happy about all the "earned media" and extra publicity they're getting out of recent events.

I'm sure that right now, the marketing and the web guy at #1 Cochran are just patting each other on the back and tweeting "who's the man! I've gone viral" to their friends and followers. And look: they've got the #1 Cochran logo in there not once, but twice, and painted red so it stands out.

So I thought to myself, hey there's a URL on that ad, so I clicked on it, and went to BIG BEN TRUCKS.COM, and it's true; you really can't make this stuff up.

Somebody more talented than I am (and they're legion) will be able to effectively Photoshop some people into that blank cutout next to The Ben. There's probably some funny juxtapositions to be had. I'm thinking maybe Terry O'Neill, President of the National Organization for Women, for starters.

Then maybe Mr. Rooney, who conveniently left it to the League to determine the response. He justified his abdication of responsibility by blaming the player's complex union contract. Not a lot of moral cred or leadership there. Not a lot of questions from the media, either.

Who else might be eager to be photoshopped with Ben, who can't appear with him because of scheduling problems? I know: we could put Mr. #1 Cochran in there, I'm sure there's a picture of him on the web.

Feel free to submit other recommendations for Pix With Ben.

I went back to and clicked the News tab, and I found this image (to the right). Looks like the special edition pickup truck has Ben's signature painted on it! Golly those guys at #1 Cochran are sure lucky. I guess that's why they're #1.

I bet those trucks really hold their value.

What surprised me, is that I would think that #1 Cochran wants to sell vehicles to women. (51% of the market, and all that) Even if trucks are mostly purchased by men (I'm not sure of that), they're probably making a financial decision with their significant other.

Why would #1 Cochran want to be affiliated with Big Ben?

I can't figure out their angle, but they're obviously very smart guys who are experts at what they're doing.
I wonder about trading in celebrity artifacts, speculating that their value will rise because of the notoriety associated with the individual. Case in point: Reebok's official NFL Steeler's women's jersey bearing Ben Roethlisberger's name and number 7.

Is it prudent to buy one and leave it in the packaging, hoping that someday it'll be worth more, this woman-specific product frozen at the time of the celebrity's suspension? Is it ethical? Because it's just business, right?

I'm thinking the time to buy is now, because you won't be able to get these forever.

When I think about the recent tragedy involving the young lady in Georgia, I'm intrigued that the only people I've seen dealing with this issue are men. The Ben, the cop, the bodyguards handlers, the lawyer, the coach, the owner - guys, guys, guys. They could have used a woman in the process. It's rather a breach of precedence that The Ben hasn't had a woman by his side in the press conferences. Won't any of these folks appear with him?

How will the women of Steeler Nation come to bear on this issue? Will they forbid or embrace Steeler Sundays when The Ben is playing? Will women's groups protest at the stadium, or will the black-and-gold minivans close into a circle and defend The Ben?

Are there no Pittsburgh feminists?

How will the women of Steeler Nation treat their men who cheer Ben on? Will they give them a six-week hiatus, with the possibility of a return at four weeks if they're appropriately submissive?

Isn't buying the jersey on speculation just doing (in a micro way) the same thing as what the Steelers are doing - betting now on the future utility value of Ben, hoping that the fast passage of time and the blurry news cycle will make the shame go away? Maybe even someday we'll look back on this and laugh?

Or, in fact, will nothing change? Here we go Steelers, here we go...

Geek Lust: HP's new 3D printer

(See Dec.2008 post on 3D printing)

Hewlett-Packard, which knows printers, is introducing a new 3-D Printer in Europe, with a later rollout in the United States. HP doesn't make the printer itself - a company named StrataSys does - but I suppose that's in keeping with the way things are done these days.

The new line of printers hopes to introduce rapid prototyping to design and engineering firms, and to eventually extend 3D printing to home hobbyists. The printer produces solid physical objects, in either a whitish-putty color or one of eight other colors (depending on the printer version).

How do you make a 3-D physical object? Well, how do you make a sculpture of an elephant? The classic advice (from Bernini) is, start with a big stone, and then take away everything that isn't an elephant. Michelangelo said a similar thing: "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

In modern 3-D printing, this is the reductive approach used by the MakerBot Cupcake machine, which uses CNC-style milling to reduce a block of material into the desired object.

There's never just one way to do things. Another path is to start off with nothing, just a clean space, and to deposit one very tiny bit of material. Then you keep adding tiny bits of material until you have an elephant. This additive approach is the path taken by the new HP printer (and also by the open-source RepRap machine).

Like the RepRap and Cupcake, the HP-Stratasys platform will operate using ABS plastic material. It's likely that the HP-Stratasys machine will, at least initially, be more like the additive approach used by Stratasys' existing Dimension line and the Reprap, not the CNC-style of the MakerBot Cupcake machine.

This new HP unit costs about US $17,000. (The open-source DIY versions run about $1000.) I remember when the new laser printers cost $20K. Eventually, the cost of the HP will come down, too.

It's going to be very cool to be able to fabricate (or print) physical objects in your garage. What's really going to be cool is when you also have a 3-D scanner. Then you can scan an object and print it, a sort of 3-D copy machine. Hmm, I guess you'd call that a replicator.

I really want one of these, but I think that what I truly want is for somebody else to pay for one and let me use it.