A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

More precisely, it was after I got there, but it’s hard to resist a goof on the 1966 play-slash-movie starring Zero Mostel (and Buster Keaton as Erronius, my favorite bogus Latin name).

In this case, “the forum” is a generalization of numerous online special-interest forums I’ve either joined or visited frequently that cater to subjects of interest to me. In the forum universe, topics on the gadget side are well covered—cars, motorcycles, photography, audio, you name it—pretty much the standard suite of guy stuff.

And, it’s mostly guys talking. It may be the nature of the subject matter, but still, it’s hard to believe there aren’t more women interested in this kind of stuff than typical forum participation suggests. On top of a useful and valuable point of view, one desirable result could be increased civility, something all of them could use.

But even with the lopsided gender balance (sidebar—a hilarious survey question a friend once received: “Number of employees broken down by sex”), these forums still can be highly useful for the information, often arcane, locked up in the participants’ heads and obtained by experience. As such, they’re a good first-place-to-go for answers not contained in places like user guides, customer support sites, or Wikipedia.

With the good also comes the not-as-good, usually in the form of uninformed opinion, obtuse generalizations, and pointless rejoinders. Bad spelling and grammar are condiments that often elevate the distaste of such posts. I’ve seen this advice posted more than once: “Don’t feed the forum idiot.”

If you’re familiar with forum culture, then you may have noticed that debates are usually futile because they have no end—the thread lives on forever, and the last word goes to the last person to post it and thus claim—even if it’s misguided—victory in the argument.

You also may have noticed that forum participants tend to stratify into several recurring groups, with variable value to the forum. As a friend who owns a retail store once said, “You know what the problem is with retail? The door’s unlocked.” So it is with forums. In no particular taxonomic order, a typical forum population usually includes but is not limited to:

The Newbie—The lowest form of forum life, the newbie can only survive with thick skin and gritted teeth until a sufficient post count is obtained to elevate status. In the forum world, “post count” is the prime metric of status, with many forums awarding titles like “Senior Member” on its basis. But until some arbitrary number is reached, the newbie survives and thrives in much the same way people do in analog reality—by listening more than talking.

The Expert—This group makes the effort to plow through forum white noise to encounter them worth the effort. They actually know what they are talking about.

The Wronghead—There are people who just fail to grasp the concept. Or, they have a firm grasp of the obvious.This group (along with the group that follows) is a large contributor of annoying and pointless posts.

The Gotcha—To some, conversation and debate are interchangeable terms. To the Gotcha, not even a typo is too insignificant to mention, and discovering a logical flaw is like finding a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk. The Gotcha has an apparent need to prove why that C+ earned in high school debate class was so well deserved.

The Enthusiast—Think of this group as a forum’s glue. Perhaps they’re not all experts, but the sheer, well, enthusiasm of this group makes a forum a pleasant place to be. And, they serve another useful purpose: if you’ve ever wondered if your intense interest in, say, ball-point pens from the 1950s seems a bit dotty, then discovering a group of people just like you is all the positive reinforcement you’ll ever need.

The Modifier—To this irrepressible group, nothing on earth has ever been designed properly. Regardless of the source—and the resources devoted to its development—anything from a popsicle stick to a fusion reactor can be made better by the modifier’s special insight, no matter how mundane or pointless the tweak.

A warning about forums: they can be addictive. Find one you like, about a topic you like, and you may find yourself advancing through the ranks on your way to expert status. Or, you may find yourself lying in bed late at night, laptop on tummy, trading sleep for writing a perspicacious missive that will wow the masses. And, maybe elevate your post count to 1,000…

PowerPointless

Have you ever sat through a great PowerPoint presentation? I didn’t think so. If thinking they should be better but somehow they’re not bothers you, then don’t worry—you have a support group in the person of Edward Tufte.

Tufte has many fans, including this one. A seminar he gave in person inspired this column, which appeared a few years ago in E&P magazine:

Show us the data

Are you doing a good job of presenting the information contained in your data? Edward Tufte thinks you are not, and he wants to tell you why.

Edward Tufte knows some things about the visual display of quantitative information. And, as the author of a widely admired book on the subject, he wants to tell you about them. He thinks you’re doing it wrong.

He’s got a legitimate gripe. If you traffic in quantitative information, then you may have experienced the occasional twinge of unfocused discomfort that the data you are presenting is somehow unclear or misleading. This is often the result of failing to solve the fundamental problem in presenting quantitative data: how best to display 4-D data (3-D space + time) on a 2-D surface fixed in time.

Tufte has devoted his career to solving that problem. Several themes run through his work. One is resolution. He is an enthusiast of paper as a tool because of its resolution, which is many times higher than the best computer screen. But Tufte is no anti-computer Luddite. He thinks that paper and pixels are complementary tools. The problem is their misapplication.

Tufte thinks that typical computer-screen real estate and resolution artificially restrict both the rate at which a viewer can take in data and the viewer’s individual methods of intake. He believes that it is better to present large amounts of data on a large piece of paper rather than successive screens on a computer. As Tufte puts it, “spatial adjacency is more effective than temporal stacking.”

A related theme is to “design the data presentation to serve the analytical task.” This is where Tufte thinks many presentations fail. Shuffling back and forth from screen to screen is less conducive to perception and analysis than having the data spread out on the same surface, even if it requires a wall-sized chart. To Tufte, a wall chart is not an unattractive option but rather an ideal method in situations that require it for the analytical task at hand.

The ability to coherently present a large amount of data, if it’s required to prove your point, gives your presentation credibility, according to Tufte. And it diminishes viewer suspicions that the data is cherry-picked, which is a pervasive persuasion technique.

OK. You’ve accepted Tufte’s theories. Now, how do you actually go about creating an effective presentation? Tufte thinks that most tools available to the typical user are inappropriate for the task. And one tool in particular, Tufte strongly believes, is especially ill-suited for creating effective presentations of data and information.

That tool is PowerPoint. Tufte has some interesting theories about the ubiquitous application, which he discusses in an essay, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.” The title suggests a neutral position.

Tufte’s opinions are far from neutral. “Bullet outlines dilute thought,” “PowerPoint has a low signal-to-noise ratio,” “We should not abbreviate the truth to make the words fit,” and other criticisms give you a better sense of his position on PowerPoint (a position Tufte also takes on every other presentation application of its type). If you agree, then you would enjoy Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address done as a PowerPoint presentation, a hilarious parody created by a friend of Tufte. It’s all the more so because his friend claims that the presentation was mostly done with the AutoContent wizard.

“PowerPoint’s hierarchy is positively medieval,” Tufte says, and forcing information into it creates a cognitive style that he calls “faux-analytical.” He cites the example of Richard Feynman, who wrote a 600-page book covering most of basic physics using only two levels: chapters and headings within chapters. By simplifying thoughts and organizing them into a hierarchy, “PowerPoint is therapy for presenters,” Tufte says. He thinks that it has little or no benefit for consumers of the presentation.

One reason why many PowerPoint presentations seem thin is, well, because they are. Tufte once made a study of 28 books on PowerPoint presentations. They contained a total of 217 data graphics, with an average of 12 numbers each. “This is astonishingly thin, nearly content-free,” he says. Tufte points to data graphics published in a wide range of periodicals that far exceed this number. Other examples close to home are the sports and business sections of newspapers, which contain vast amounts of quantitative data, all of it spatially adjacent and easy to comprehend. Here, as Tufte would surely say, the data presentation is designed to serve the analytical task.

Making fun of badly done PowerPoint presentations can create the impression that no real harm is done, but the consequences can be serious. Tufte performed an analysis for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board of three PowerPoint presentations created during the last flight of the space shuttle Columbia. These were directed at NASA officials making decisions during the shuttle’s flight. In its final report, the board said that it “…views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”

Edward Tufte has other strongly held opinions about presenting information. If a twist of fate should ever have you giving a presentation to him, do not—repeat, do not—use the word “significant” anywhere in your presentation. Trust us on this one.

A finger hovers over the launch button

A pun is the lowest form of humor—unless you think of it first. That nugget could perhaps apply to the title of this blog, which otherwise has no profound meaning.

Punditry (a good word with the wrong definition) aside, the content of this blog will certainly not be about math. In a serious and often sad world, I mostly filter for humor.

But there’s still some serious stuff to talk about. Take local television news (please), as a shining example. This is an institution that consistently induces more spittle-spraying apoplexy in me than most anything else. That subject will be addressed—in the often spouted words of George what’s-his-name, the recently deposed Mens Wearhouse guy, I guarantee it.

Also deserving of a gimlet-eyed stare are shibboleths of various sorts, at least where they appear in areas of interest to me.  As a substitute for thinking, they are insidious, ubiquitous, and deserve to be thumped.

Reappearing from time to time will be columns written for an oil and gas industry trade magazine during time served as editor there, at least the ones about less serious subjects. IMHO, they’ve held up reasonably well, and this is an opportunity to enlarge the original audience beyond the many thousands (hundreds? tens?) consuming them with give-me-more enthusiasm the first time around.

After many years in a deadline-driven business, another thing George would guarantee if he were me is irregularity of publication.

Off we go. Feel free to contact me if you have something nice to say. Otherwise, don’t feel as free, but say what you must say.

Thanks for standing at the dock and waving me off.