While my guitar gently weeps

Anthropomorphically speaking, it weeps over—or at least is greatly annoyed by—my attempts to play it. But, as a rank beginner, a little pain on its part and mine is expected.

As a fully grown adult, my reasons for learning to play are different than they might have been in years past. At the top of that list would have been attracting girls. One the best (of many) scenes in the movie “Animal House” was during the toga party; while it rages on around him, the sensitive, mustachioed and turtlenecked folk singer type badly strums and sings a tune while several cute girls sit around him on the staircase, transfixed. Until Bluto Blutarsky comes upon him and smashes his guitar to bits, that is, which makes everyone who once knew That Guy stand up and cheer. But deep down, for most of us then it was envy of the power to mesmerize girls with a guitar.

Those motivations are past, but what’s left is music itself. You could look upon me as practically a lab rat. What happens when someone whose ignorance of music remained absolute well into middle age decides to learn an instrument? Failure preordained? Aged-in-advance rock star emerges from the cocoon? Degenerate bluesman mumbling old standards?

For now, none of the above, but I favor bluesman (with maybe the look of degeneracy, but not the fact of it) as an outcome. At any rate, what is happening is this: the veil is starting to lift. It’s a lot like learning a magician’s tricks. Before, it seems like stuff only accessible to a priesthood. But after you see how it’s done, you realize there’s a real possibility that you could do it too.

As with everything else that requires simultaneous thinking and motor skills, one’s talent will lie on a continuum. But the sheer pleasure of making music makes easier acceptance of a spot on that continuum barely past the bottom end. 

To say music is an extraordinary subject seems banal. But how else to put it? If you really enjoy music, learning an instrument is a revelation, even at my age and point of development just past the starting line, which you could say are inversely proportional. And even if my fingers stubbornly resist being told what to do, learning music theory—the “why” of it—is perhaps the most revelatory of all.

If you’ve held back because, like me, you thought you couldn’t do it, ignore that guy. Get yourself an axe, dive into the ocean of online instructional materials, and change your life.

What to do to the Dome

The ultimate disposition of the Eighth Wonder of the World, aka the Astrodome, admittedly concerns Houstonians only, and apparently not many of them.

It’s no wonder. There’s no better way to feel powerless at the municipal level than by watching the Usual Suspects—developers with vision-free ideas, government officials with personal advancement ideas, and movers and shakers of all sorts—rolling around in the dirt.

So far, ideas include the mundane—a parking lot (a classic reuse of historic Houston buildings), some sort of memorial to the building—after they tear it down (!), and a dull assortment of amusement parks and hotels.

But IMHO, there is a good idea out there, submitted respectfully and no doubt futilely by Your Obedient Servant (for the second time—the first didn’t even rate a reply asking me to not bother the recipients) in a recent letter to the Houston Chronicle, which spells it out:

To the Editor:

The Houston Museum of Science and Technology—this is the most appropriate reuse of the Astrodome. The building would serve as both a container for the city’s accomplishments and one of its most impressive exhibits.

Energy, medicine, transportation—a lot has happened in a town whose tourist slogan could well be “Houston: The City Without a History.”

The Saturn moon rocket spent years in NASA’s “front yard,” much like an abandoned car in a run-down neighborhood. Imagine it on proper display, vertically and in the center of the Astrodome, as the literal centerpiece of the museum. The Saturn moon rocket is arguably a more important space vehicle than the Shuttle, and unlike the Shuttle, the city has one.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something right, on a grand scale. Isn’t it time others know more about the rich history the city seems so determined to ignore?

The Voltswagen

…is what I call my new-to-me 2012 Chevy Volt, and it makes my old Prius seem like a gas guzzler.

It’s also a remarkably polarizing car (perhaps it should have been given the old Dodge Polara name) that inspires positive and negative passions that can blindside you if you mention that you drive one. But you’re in luck. There’s a good way to get ready for a hop onto the automotive soapbox: visit a few online car-head forums and you’ll soon be up to speed, as it were, on all the enthusiasm, technical facts, and shibboleths that surround the Volt.

The technical facts are, well, facts, but the shibboleths are not. They are mostly an obtuse rebuttal to nontraditional cars, made for reasons hard to discern. But hey, what do scientists, engineers, and economists not know that these people do?

I addressed this subject in a 2007 column:

Miles per, er…

It used to be so simple. Divide the miles you drove since the last fill-up by the amount of fuel you just put in the tank, and there you have it—your average MPG for that distance.

Not anymore. Say you have a hybrid vehicle. These have internal combustion engines or ICE, as hybrid fans call them (is displacement specified in ICE cubes?), that typically don’t run 100% of the time. In certain circumstances, propulsion is by an electric motor supplied by an onboard battery pack. At a stop, everything shuts off. The electric motor means the ICE can be smaller. This factor combined with part-time operation mostly explains hybrid MPG ratings and low fuel costs.

To some people, anyway. There are those who believe that the cost accounting should consider much more than fuel consumed and miles traveled. Add to this, they say, such things as the energy costs of manufacturing the batteries, mining the nickel and other metals used in their construction and battery disposal.

Here’s how the balance sheet looks to The Recorder, Central Connecticut State University’s student newspaper. A recent editorial headline provocatively states, “Prius Outdoes Hummer in Environmental Damage.”

How’s that? The Recorder claims that “When you pool together all the combined energy it takes to drive and build a Toyota Prius, the flagship car of energy fanatics, it takes almost 50% more energy than a Hummer—the Prius’s arch nemesis.

“Through a study by CNW Marketing called ‘Dust to Dust,’ the total combined energy is taken from all the electrical, fuel, transportation, materials (metal, plastic, etc) and hundreds of other factors over the expected lifetime of a vehicle. The Prius costs an average of US $3.25 per mile driven over a lifetime of 100,000 miles—the expected lifespan of the Hybrid.

“The Hummer, on the other hand, costs a more fiscal $1.95 per mile to put on the road over an expected lifetime of 300,000 miles. That means the Hummer will last three times longer than a Prius and use less combined energy doing it.

“So, if you are really an environmentalist—ditch the Prius.”

But wait, Prius fans sputter; the assumptions are all wrong. Possible. For example, CNW Marketing—whoever that is—apparently didn’t run the numbers for equivalent lifespans. Or maybe they did, and the results didn’t carry the same magnetic attraction to controversy-consuming media.

But the point remains—how do you go about calculating the true cost of transporting yourself a given distance via motor vehicle? Even among motor fuels, what about the subsidy cost of ethanol? Do you discount the energy density difference between gasoline, E10 and E85 (aka Flexfuel)? Should you compare on the basis of fuel consumption per “seat mile?” On that basis, by the way, a Boeing 747 carrying 500 people beats out the Prius carrying two people. It can be shown that the 747 is getting 100 miles per gallon per person (at 550 mph!).

When you’re car-shopping a few years from now and trying to choose from cars that run on Flexfuel, biobutanol (coming soon), fuel cells (coming later), or whatever else is commercial by then, the fuel-economy numbers on the sticker may have disappeared along with their usefulness as a comparison to energy-conscious consumers.

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.