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Talk: Tufte

Photo of Edward TufteI was really excited to go see Tufte today for his day long course. His writings and teachings are excellent, and I find them useful whenever I am displaying visual information, even if I cannot live up to the standards that they profess. Sometimes I wish Tufte would sell software with his design principles built-in, rather than the pie-chart glory of Excel. In fact, I learned during the talk from Peter Norvig (slightly more on this later) that the Autocomplete Wizard in Powerpoint started off as a joke by the engineering people to the marketing people, along the lines of "oh yeah, and we can just have the application fill in all the content for you." Clearly, engineers don't understand marketing.

So, on to the talk, which I discuss my rants and raves in the extended entry.

I came away from the talk a little bit disappointed, not terribly, but a little bit. Tufte started off strong, presenting one-by-one his grand principles outlined in Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which I thought would lead to exciting revelations throughout the talk, but there came a point where he transformed into the table of contents for his books

"on this page there's this diagram that ____, and if we go to page 74 we can see another diagram that _____."
It was during this portion of the talk, where it became a talk about the structure of the books rather than the content of the books, that I got the sudden fear that I was in an informercial. This fear was further heightened when he had us turn to the colophon page of Visual Explanations, which is printed on top of a light grid, I think so that he could inform us that we could purchase similar grid paper outside the room.

There were more portions of the talk that I did enjoy, such as his analysis of the engineering presentations given before the Challenger and Columbia accidents, and there was also a nice portion where Peter Norvig got up and explained the inspiration behind his Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation. If I got back through my notes, I'm sure I can pull out some other neat examples, and perhaps I will later. One example I do remember well is that Tufte closed with a video of an old Homebrew PC application playing a piece by Chopin. Bars representing the notes would scroll across the screen from right to left and light up as the piece was played. What was nice about this display was that it was true that if you focused on a particular bar, you could hear that particular note being played, even amongst the other lines.

What was maddening throughout, though, was that even when Tufte focused on a particular example, you could hear him using the exact same verb and adjective choices as were present in the text that you were following along in. Alyssa pointed out the hypocrisy of him essentially reading from the textbook, and him criticizing Powerpoint presenters who read their bullet points. What I found particularly problematic about this approach is that it doesn't add anything over reading the book yourself.

Another point of frustration was that you constantly had to flip between the three books and his powerpoint essay as he switched examples. First, let me say that it was a good idea to have us view the examples on paper, because it reinforces his point that paper is much higher resolution display that a projector, and he kept to his teachings in that regard. It would have been worth an extra $10, though, for him to print the exerpts that he is going to use into another booklet and let us follow along in that instead. It also would have been less obvious when he was reading his text directly. Imagine that you are sitting at a table, with a person on your left and right sitting pretty closely, and on top of this table you have three large hardcover books, an essay booklet, a handout, your drink, a rolled-up poster, and a notebook in which you are writing. This table is not very large, and everytime he switches examples, you have to put down your pen, find the next book in the stack, and re-arrange everything on your table so that it doesn't all come crashing down.

My last, and final, pet peeve is that there wasn't any real interaction with Tufte. I think of the role of a teacher as someone you interact with, but the closest we got to that was a long "autograph and question" line during five minute breaks.

I may transcribe my notes, but the fact of the matter is, his presentation was really similar to the text. I already have outline notes for the Visual Display, so I may just wait until I finish reading the other two and post notes from those instead.

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» Tufte's sparklines from kwc blog
Tufte has posted some of the material from his upcoming Beautiful Evidence book that covers his concept of 'sparkline.' Sparklines are essentially tiny graphics that can convey trends very quickly, and in some cases they can provide very specific data.... [Read More]

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on December 11, 2003 6:20 PM.

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