Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Standardization of graphical content... it's tough!

I recently stumbled across an interesting paper:

Chandar, Collier, and Miranti (2011). Graph Standardization and management accounting at AT&T during the 1920s. Accounting History, 17(1), 35-62.

The authors tell an interesting story about the growth of telecom and the need to organize a large, diverse, and sprawling enterprise. During the 1910s and 1920s AT&T needed a way of controlling its various operating units and it turned to standardization of communication, particularly through the use of graphical representations of data. They note:

"The high degree of common language absorption, thus, facilitates the smooth transition of information and knowledge through complex organizational settings."

AT&T pursued the goal by creating standards for the presentation of time trend charts, frequency charts, and bar charts. It also created extensive guidelines on how to actually create these things.

A few things struck me as I read the paper and reviewed some of the referenced articles from the time period in question (e.g., Bateman's 1922 "A method of graphical analysis"). The first is that the figures are remarkably modern. They could have been generated by a recent release of Excel (without the chart junk). The graphs certainly represent a sign post to the future. The second thing that struck me is the amount of effort required to generate these documents. AT&T's graphical standards departments included over 100 staff and the production guidelines are incredibly detailed. Standardization is never easy!

The paper is an interesting historical journey into the birth of graphical presentation. It is not, however, critical or overly analytical. I wish the authors had taken the paper in a different direction. In particulary, I wanted more guidance on "how" this standardization occurred, not just what was standardized.

We know that standardization is tough. Bowker and Star (among many others) tell us this much. And we know that not every stakeholder within AT&T would be amenable to the changes. An analysis using some sort of SCOT (Social Construction of Technology) or Actor-Network framework would give us some insight into the groups that had to use these graphs and, perhaps, the resistance that they demonstrated. Furthermore, it would give us some perspective on how AT&T overcame this resistance (I'm assuming it did). Of course, these issues are tough to address. The source material may not be sufficiently rich to get to them but the analysis would certainly be interesting... to me at least.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Big Food is ahead of us: David Schleifer on trans fats

I haven't completely given up my academic habits. There are still a few journals that I monitor and I still consider myself an aspiring sociologist and/or historian of science and/or technology (I'll keep my options open). This mostly asleep interest recently collided with some of my other interests due to a recent article in Technology and Culture by David Schleifer. It reads like a missing chapter from Gary Taubes's Good Calories Bad Calories (fitting, perhaps, since Taubes contributed a missing chapter to Timothy Ferriss's Four Hour Body).

I haven't read the article -- my library rights have become a bit complicated -- but I did look up some of Schleifer's earlier work.

It seems that our recent phobia of trans  fats is nothing new. In fact, the food industry is ahead of us. Schleifer notes:

"Trans fats’ ongoing exit from the American food system is due less to the regulatory actions of any government—nanny, iron-fisted, or latex-gloved—than to an underlying tenet of the food industry: Fear sells."

The partially hydrogenated oils were initially positioned as the solution for saturated fats! I now know too many people of the older generation who maintain this view and still eschew butter for big-box margarine. No paleo for them. So where did this stuff come from?

In 1905 P&G created hydrogenated oil for candles... but it looked like lard. Electrification (queue Hughes on Edison) was quickly undermining the candle market so P&G needed a new market and lard-replacement looked good. The name "Krispo" was taken so they opted for Crisco in 1911. It was initially a combination of hydrogenated oil and liquid oil

By the 1940s, it was all hydrogenated oils. It had a high smoke point and didn't go rancid. And they were cheap because they were made from left over soy beans. Then, in 1961, Ancel Keys announced via the cover of Time magazie that saturated fat is killing us (queue Taubes). We replaced butter with margarine (containing about 25% trans fats) and in the late 80s restaurants replaced lard, beef tallow, palm oil, and coconut oil with partially hydrogenated oils due public outcry.

The danger of trans fats was recongized in 1990 by two Dutch researchers. Big Food reacted in a predictable fashion. It tried to buy science and when that failed it quickly looked for alternatives. It apparently cost Frito-Lay $22-million to get trans fats out of Doritos, Tostitos, and Cheetos. Meanwhile, palm oil is making a big comeback for bakeries. Everyone is preparing for change in ingredients while trying to avoid a change in taste. Nobody wants to be the next New Coke.

So, what's next for the food industry? Not surprisingly, it's omega-3s. Of course, they're not shelf-stable and the new oils that have been bred to eliminate hydrogenation have almost no omega-3... but that's a problem for the next generation.

What's interesting to me about Schleifer's work is that it all just seems like normal science. It's not nefarious or deceitful; it's just Big Food wanting to stay a few steps and a few dollars ahead of us. I got the same feeling from Kessler's End of overeating... perhaps I shouldn't be surprised since Schleifer did reference Kessler's A question of intent.

Bottom line: Don't worry. Big food is ahead of you. Perhaps it's best just to eat where Big Food can't go!

Fear of Frying: A brief history of trans fats.

We spend a million bucks and then we had to do something: The unexpected implications of industry involvement in trans fat research
Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society.