data, aesthetics, and rhetoric

I ran across this very cool visualization of debt statistics (from David McCandless’s Information is Beautiful collection) yesterday:

Cool, right? It’s a smart way to present the info, well-executed, even charming for Gen Xers. It’s the Tetris narrative (enhanced by the accelerating tune) that seems ripe for rhetorical effect, I think. But when I showed it to my (logical) partner, he immediately called out the problem: It has no argument. The numbers, while striking in contrast, have unclear relationships and have been selected, or at least arranged, without seeming to have a point… which may not have been the goal of the creator, obviously.

But imagine the kinds of sweet rhetorical work could be done with such creative approaches to representing sharing data…

Know Your Music: Tempo Rubato as a Persuasive Technique

When you lay on a couch and listen to Chopin, you’re bound to notice something very specific. One of the things that makes a Chopin piano piece is the lingering resonance and/or the quick succession of certain notes or phrases. There’s a technical term for that. It’s called “tempo rubato.” (If you’re burning to hear an example, try Martha Argerich’s performance of Nocturne No. 16 in E Flat, Op 55, No. 2.)

I would suggest (and I do) that tempo rubato is a rhetorical technique within the form of musical performance. It is a style meant to express improvisation and feeling. . . pathos. By speeding up, we are hurried through the piece and by slowing down we are forced to contemplate that musical phrase. Like any good romantic period piece, it emotes and manipulates. Tempo rubato manipulates its audiences into feeling differently than if the piece were kept in strict time.

I know, I know–you may be asking yourself why this is important. Why does it matter what it’s called as long as it’s effective, right?  Well, I guess I’m kind of a music geek (I did minor in it), but the effect that music has on our current society is undeniable. Don’t you think?

How many musicians have benefited from Apple commercials using their songs (The Ting Tings, Yael Naim, CSS, Prototypes, etc.) or car/alcohol/sports commercials (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Young Dubliners, etc):

(Which, I am a fan of Spread Your Love by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. It’s definitely a driving-in-your-car-feeling-bad-ass song.)

Music is used to add to other persuasive forms/arguments/compositions, yes. It’s used in movies, tv, commercials, grocery stores, department stores, etc., etc., but music also has its own persuasive techniques within itself. I once learned in some music class which I can’t pin down that what most people were drawn to most of the time was the use contrast and repetition. That’s why songs on the Top 40 lists follow the same basic format: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus.

This is where tempo rubato comes in. This technique is used to offer that contrast which maintains a person’s interest while repeating a phrase that we’ve already heard. It draws us in because there is familiarity and keeps us there because there are slight changes. It persuades us to keep listening.

Re: Are Poets Bad Motherfuckers?

That’s what Olena Kalytiak Davis asked when she blogged for the Poetry Foundation last September. So, are poets bad motherfuckers? Are they different from anybody else? Call me an optimist, but I think we all have our “poetry.” We all have our thing that we are intrinsically interested and invested in. And by that definition, rhetoricians are bad motherfuckers too. We’re all bad motherfuckers. As long as we invest ourselves in exploring the things that truly interest us, hell, geek out on those things, then we are some bad motherfuckers.

But poetry specifically. Let’s talk about that. Olena (oh yes, I’m going with the first name [attribute it to being a bad motherf______–my mother doesn’t like it when I say that word]) asks in her post, “are we living our lives differently? better? or are we just making stupid poetry ‘moves’?.”

Is it not those “stupid poetry moves” that contain the persuasiveness of poetry? James Longenbach writes in his book, The Resistance To Poetry:

[T]he marginality of poetry is in many ways the source of its power, a power contingent on poetry’s capacity to resist itself more strenuously than it is resisted by the culture at large.

Throughout this entire book, Longenbach emphasizes that the audience of poetry interacts with that particular genre because we find enjoyment in the challenge. Yes, poetry can be difficult, but, to quote Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, “the hard is what makes it great.” (Heck yeah, I just dropped an eighteen year old movie reference on you.)

So, aren’t those poetry moves absolutely pertinent to poetry? If poets stopped choosing to persuade their audience in the way that they do, then, at that moment, wouldn’t they stop being bad motherfuckers?

Facebook Privacy: Less Private?

Earlier this month, Facebook changed the way privacy settings work. In several posts across the web, people are talking about how the privacy changes actually limit how much Facebook users can keep private. If you’re curious about these changes, then check out ProfHacker’s “Managing Facebook Privacy Settings (Round 2),” digital inspiration’s “How to Cross-Check Your Facebook Privacy Settings,” the Electronic Frontier Foundations’s (EFF ) “Facebook’s New Privacy Changes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” or Gawker’s “The Facebook Privacy Settings You’ve Lost Forever.” (Personally speaking, it’s driving me crazy that I can no longer block updates about when I “like” a friend’s status. First of all, who cares to know that? Second of all, it’s cluttering up my profile. Third of all, that’s between me and the person I like. Ha, get it? 😉

"Facebook privacy with friend lists" by Trucknroll, flickr

"Facebook privacy with friend lists" by Trucknroll, flickr

What I find interesting is the way Facebook is trying to market this change. In “An Open Letter from Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg,” Zuckerberg states:

We’re adding something that many of you have asked for — the ability to control who sees each individual piece of content you create or upload.

I assume what he’s referring to here is the ability to put specific privacy setting for each thing posted. If you post a status, then yes, you can determine whether it gets posted to friends, friends of friends, or everyone. You can also choose to share with specific people or choose a major group and leave out certain people. I think that is cool; however, it seems a user cannot update automatic feeds like new friends or “liked” posts. A user can delete these things off their feed/wall/whatever-you-wanna-call-it one by one, but the user no longer has the ability to say, “No, don’t add that without my permission.”

More perplexing is when Zuckerberg says this:

We’ve worked hard to build controls that we think will be better for you, but we also understand that everyone’s needs are different. We’ll suggest settings for you based on your current level of privacy, but the best way for you to find the right settings is to read through all your options and customize them for yourself. I encourage you to do this and consider who you’re sharing with online.

Um, what? First off, I hate the idea of Facebook as this benevolent dictator, who’s only looking out for their users. If that were so, wouldn’t we be able to have control over the things we already had control over—rather than having that ability taken away?

Secondly, isn’t it a bit hypocritical to warn users about who they’re sharing content with when they can’t even control certain very important things about their profiles. For instance, a user can no longer block the kind of content that would be shared with a search engine. Previously, it was possible to block someone from seeing who your friends were, what pages you were a fan of, and your profile picture from search engines. You might have been listed in a Google search, but it’s possible not much was listed. Now, there’s the option of being listed or not. That’s it. Two choices. No more.

Facebook by _Max-B, flickr

"Facebook" by _Max-B, flickr

This, apparently, is in a move to make, as Zuckerberg says, “the world more open and connected.” Aw, isn’t that sweet? Facebook is gonna play psychologist and open us right up. The thought is nice. It’s nice in theory to think about being open and connected with the rest of the world—it really is, but merely taking away privacy controls is not going to make the world open and connected. People who wanted that privacy will just pull their content down. Moreover, Zuckerberg’s letter seems to ignore that those privacy controls will disappear. He concentrates more on the outdated network model and how changing that model will give more control to the user. Sure, I agree with getting rid of the networks, but that doesn’t mean that users have more control over their privacy settings. The two are not dependent upon each other. It’s kind of a shady look over here! (so, you don’t look over here) kinda move.

But, in the end, Facebook is a benevolent dictator. They make changes and Facebook users put up with it, adjust to it, and adapt, because they have to. At least, if they want to keep using that social network, then they have to. In this scenario, I’d say that most users probably didn’t take too much note. In my opinion, there are far too many people who are far too open and connected, so many probably didn’t even pay attention to the privacy settings when everything was first switched. And, in that case, they wouldn’t miss settings they never used. So, it’s not like Facebook or Zuckerberg would have had to do a lot of convincing for those audiences. The others, well, they’re the ones writing those articles at the top of this blog post and they don’t seem so convinced to me.

Trading iPods

To continue on my music-is-a-form-of-communication rant, I recommend you read and/or listen to this short piece by Andre Codrescu.

In this piece, he describes listening to his wife’s ipod after his dies and the world that opens up to him after doing so. I like the potential of this. I like the thought that our choices of what to put on our ipod communicates our lives to other people and that those choices impact their lives as well. Call me idealistic, but I find it a beautiful concept.

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Adventures of File Clerkdom

After seeing The Colbert Report’s show the other day, the flashbacks started. You see, in this segement, he talks about the perks that doctors get from pharmaceutical companies.

Unfortunately (or fortunately if you love Colbert), the part I’m referring to (Corporate Health) isn’t until 4 minutes into the video, but in it he says that pharmaceutical companies are cutting back on those perks (pens, mugs, etc) in order to save money.

Now, for the flashbacks. When I was 15, I worked in a medical office as a file clerk for a summer job. I’d say that throughout the summer that I worked there, I probably only had to get my own lunch maybe 4 times. That’s a fairly liberal estimate too. Why did I never get my own lunch? It’s not because I wasn’t eating.

You see, the drug reps — that’s what we call them — would often buy lunch or breakfast for the office in exchange for hanging around and trying to talk to the doctors while they eat. Often times, it really turned out that Mr. or Ms. Drug Rep would sit there and watch the young file clerk read her summer list of novels for Honors American Lit. And since the young file clerk always took a late lunch in order to avoid a packed break room, it often was just her and the drug rep. The file clerk read. The drug rep shifted in their chair. Drummed their fingers on the table. Cleared their throat. Then the inevitable question would arise.

“So, does Dr. ____ usually eat in?”

“It varies.” The young clerk says in the very vague way that only teenagers can seem to get away with.

“Like how?”

“Well, Thursdays are Dr. _____’s half day. He sees some people and then plays golf for the rest of the day.” (By the by, if you think doctors playing golf is a stereotype, it may well be. I’m sure that you can find plenty of doctors who don’t play golf, but there is a basis for that particular stereotype. Jus’ sayin’.)

“I see, but this isn’t Thursday.”

“Right, but Dr. _____ is a specialist. He does rounds at the hospitals — referals, you know — and only comes to the office to see patients or to talk to the other doctors.”


photo by Plutor of Flickr
photo by Plutor of Flickr

The industry just makes me laugh and cry, really. The entire health care system. It’s so sad that you have to laugh at it just so it doesn’t drive you crazy. These pharmaceutical companies spend all this money with their drug stamped on pens, pads, mugs, stress balls, lunches, little foam things in the shape of organs–no really, I have a yellow brain like that. They spend all this money just for doctors to avoid talking to them. Oh, and these are just little things. I know companies used to give away tickets to sports events, or dinners to extremely expensive restaurants (Smith and Wollensky comes to mind). I mean, you can get some pretty serious loot from being a doctor.

Don’t get me completely wrong. For the most part, I’m not a fan of drug reps. I find them to be more of an annoyance and waste of money that could be going to patients, but they are somewhat successful at times. Doctors will generally listen to whatever new drug this person is marketing, but I’m most concerned that this is the primary form that doctors hear about new medicines.

If a drug is truly going to change patients’ lives then why is it necessary to give so much of this crap away just to get attention? Sure, providing medical offices with lunch may give you face to face time with the doctors, but the doctors I’ve don’t appear overly persuaded by a free meal or a few pens. If the drug truly would work well for the patients, then they’ll try it and if not, then they won’t.

Of course, that’s just from personal experience. I would like to see some studies or statistics on whether drug reps truly do make a difference or not. I have a feeling, though, that it’d be hard to find a control group of physicians who have never been approached by a drug rep.

campaign candy

Elections are like candy stores for rhetorical critics — or anyone paying attention. From lawn signs to public endorsements, talk shows to chalk art, campaign ads to Facebook rallies… it’s all just so damn tasty.

So, as the polls close, let’s take a moment to think back on all the good times. I think I have to stick with the RNC’s Palin bio as my favorite treat. C’mon — you know the alliterative glory of “Mother, Moosehunter, Maverick” gave you chills (you may have mistaken them for a shudder).

What’s yours? To refresh your memory:

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