Sunday, May 29, 2005

Visual Explanations, by Edward Tufte

Visual Explanations, Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, by Edward Tufte

The text is intellectual snobbery, but the images are fantastic. To be fair, Tufte makes really good points about how to effectively use visuals of all sorts (charts, reports, maps, fonts, etc.) but the tone is pretentious. Tufte believes that one should not talk down to an audience, and he certainly doesn’t here. For example, from page 116: "Multiple versions of these prankish glasses reinforce the perception that what we have here is not merely a one-time lapse but rather a chronic silliness—just as the multiple views of the multiple Watergate defendants intensify the atmosphere of feloniousness." Not exactly Dr. Seuss, eh?

That said, the pictures are so compelling I spent at least an hour just thumbing through the book before starting to actually read it! My favorite chapter was Explaining Magic: Pictorial Instructions and Disinformation Design. The rest of the book is describes how important images are, but this chapter is about magic and the corruption of visual information. Fascinating stuff. The single most compelling image, however, is the visual history of rock and roll presented on pages 90 and 91; I couldn’t find a copy online, but a snippet can be seen in the background here. This diagram grabs my attention each and every time I see it.

First Sentence:
Our thinking is filled with assessments of quantity, an approximate or exact sense of number, amount, size, scale.

The Naked Corporation, by Tapscott and Ticoll

The Naked Corporation, by Tapscott and Ticoll

Good book, but a tough read. Big idea: honesty and openness in the business world builds consumer trust and builds long-term revenue streams. As with most management books these days, it is filled with examples. Most discuss the converse, where opacity causes huge problems; for instance, Union Carbide and the Bhopal disaster or Kellogg’s attempt to conceal genetically modified food. There are stories of how companies have changed over time, too; consider that Nike went from a sweatshop company to a leader for off-shore labor practices. While the book makes a compelling point, I found it difficult to read—to call it dry is an insult to toast. I’m certainly not sorry I spent the time, but I wish I’d found the website first. I do plan on bugging my investment advisor about how my proxies are voted, though!

First Sentence:
The 2002 trust crisis was arguably the worst on Wall Street since the 1929 market crash and the Depression if the 1930s.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, by Edward R. Tufte

The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, by Edward R. Tufte

Tufte is a man that clearly feels confident in his opinions. This essay rails around the central thought that Microsoft PowerPoint is a terrible tool for serious presentations. He makes several really good arguments in this vein, but his style is so arrogant that I believe his points get lost in the rhetoric. Combined with his haughty tone, the impact of his statements are greatly diminished.

The highlight is where he systematically destroys a presentation by Boeing for NASA assessing the impact of the wing damage the shuttle Columbia acquired during takeoff. This is a very enlightening passage that shows how important clear communication can be. If NASA has gotten a better picture of the seriousness of the damage, we might have had a very different result. Boeing doesn’t appear to be intentionally misleading here, but tragically ineffective.

In the closing pages he addresses the most serious flaw in his argument — that the people using the software are to blame, not the software itself. Tufte’s argument is that because PowerPoint makes it easy to generate facile presentations, that is all you get. He seems to think that because PP can be used for bad things it should be avoided entirely. In my opinion this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I do admit I will put more thought into using PP for my next presentation.

First Sentence:
In corporate and government bureaucracies, the standard method for making a presentation is to talk about a list of points organized onto slides projected up on the wall.

Counting Up, Counting Down, by Harry Turtledove

Counting Up, Counting Down, by Harry Turtledove

Another group of short stories by Turtledove. Like most collections, there were a few good ones (Deconstruction Gang and After the Last Elf is Dead) and a few duds (The Phantom Tolbukhin and Honeymouth). The reason to read this, though, is for the first and last stories: Forty, Counting Down and Twenty-one, Counting Up. These tell the story of a man going back in time to his own past from both points-of-view, the first from the older man traveling backwards and the second from the younger man getting visited. The plots are interesting, depicting the lyrics from the famous song: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you find you get what you need.” I’ve read a lot of time-travel stories, but this unique take showing both sides of the visit makes it truly unique.

First Sentence (from the first story):
“Hey, Justin!”

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Eight gallons today! blood? I'm a regular blood donor, and this morning I hit eight gallons. I started donating in college and have kept it up off and on since. I have plenty of bad habits, so I'm glad to have kept at least one good one! Blood is in constant demand and short supply, so please consider donating yourself. It doesn't take much time, and they give you cookies!

Monday, May 02, 2005

Inside the Magic Kingdom: Disney's Seven Secrets To Success, by Tom Connellan

Inside the Magic Kingdom, by Tom Connellan

Interesting book. I picked it up because I have a friend who is really into all things Disney; he has some great stories about how the park operates and so I thought I’d try this. It was a bit self-helppy for my tastes (populated with lots of shiny happy people) but it was short enough that I didn’t get too tired of it.

The message of the book is similar to Love Is the Killer App—mean people suck. The book argues that every company competes with every other company because everyone deals with customers. If FedEx gives top-shelf phone support to somebody, when that same person calls Time-Warner they are going to expect/desire a similar experience even though they aren’t direct competitors. If you have the best customer support organization on the planet, you’ll be a very successful company. Overstated a bit, but an intriguing thought. I don’t believe that good support makes up for a bad product, but I can certainly see where it will give you time to improve.

The stories about the park I found fascinating: hidden Mickey’s, period clothing (right down to the types of stitches used) on each figure in the Hall of Presidents, the people the tombstones in the Haunted Mansion represent, and so on. The underground areas and mechanics of running the resort are touched on too; I’m told that the behind-the-scenes tours are some of the best the park has to offer. My wife has been bugging me to take the family to Orlando; while I’m still not at all excited about seeing life-sized mute mice again, there clearly is a side to the park I haven’t considered.

First Sentence:
Bill Greenfield stopped at the magazine kiosk outside his building and asked for a copy of Black Enterprise.

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