Saturday, September 27, 2008

Tales of the Table Topics Bunny and the Jackalope

Folk tales often come from attempting to craft explanations to questions posed by children. (The Table Topics Bunny first appeared in a June 30 post on this blog).

1) Daddy, where do Table Topics questions come from?
The simple answer is that the Table Topics Bunny (TTB) brings them.

2) When does the TTB arrive?
Every year he hops by on February 22nd and leaves a stack of questions. He visits many Toastmasters on that day in memory of the birthday of their founder, Dr. Ralph C. Smedley.

3) Is he related to any other famous bunnies?
The TTB recently was interviewed by a supermarket tabloid late one night in the Geisel Library at UCSD. Harvey revealed that his daughter, who actually is the famous Energizer Bunny (EB), possibly has “stimulant abuse issues” and currently is in rehab at an undisclosed location “near St. Louis”.

She learned to play the drum for junior high band. The “sandals, shades, and attitude” came later in high school when she started to “hang with the bad beach bunnies”, began taking diet pills, and then headed to LA to become a singer or actress.

Her name really is Miley, and her 3 pink sisters are Britney, Lindsey, and Amy. She also has 4 blue brothers: Clem, Leroy, Brad, and Ethan. Clem (Clement) originally was going to be the battery company mascot. Then an ice cream manufacturer objected that they already had long used a Blue Bunny as a trademark on their packaging. So, Clem suggested that they use his sister instead. She got the job, but due to an oversight the ad copy never was corrected to “she just keeps on going”. Harvey and Barbie are proud of all eight of their their children.

Right now the TTB is much more obscure than the mighty Jackalope (a cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope), which is a mythic horned creature from Wyoming. The jackalope’s legend reportedly began with Douglas Herrick, a taxidermist from Douglas.

An entire tourist industry soon developed selling stuffed jackalopes, etc. Videos of jackalopes are rare, but you can glimpse one on Youtube in the song Creepy Jackalope Eye by the Supersuckers. If you can’t understand the lyrics, you can just read them at Steve Earle’s web site.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Advice on effectively communicating numbers

In 2004 Professor Stephen Few, who teaches in the MBA program at the University of California, Berkeley wrote a 280 page hardcover book called Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten. Books are wonderful, but reading them takes lots of time.

In 2005 he produced a more manageable 24 page whitepaper on Effectively Communicating Numbers. It discusses how to decide if you should use a table or a graph. Then it discusses choosing and using different types of graphs in considerable detail. The paper concludes with a single page appendix showing the steps involved in designing a graph. (This paper also contains a 10 page appendix by Proclarity Corporation in Boise which illustrates the use of their software. In Spring 2006 Proclarity was purchased by Microsoft and their software became the foundation for PerformancePoint Server.)

You can find most of Professor Few’s other articles in a library on his website. An exception is a recent 80 page presentation on Graph Design for Effective Communication from June 2008.

Both documents do an excellent job of covering the topic of displaying numerical data so that it produces “interocular traumatic impact”, which is his playful academic jargon for “hits you right between the eyes”.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pie charts do not speak clearly; they just mumble

Gene Zelazny’s textbook Say It with Charts notes that: “In general, pie charts are the least practical of the five chart forms. They also are the most misused and, worse, the most abused.“

In an eloquent 14-page newsletter article titled Save the Pies for Dessert Stephen Few also argues that pie charts are not a very useful tool for presenting information. Quantitative comparison of percentages on a pie chart requires comparing angles that are spatially in disarray. That is more difficult for people than looking at a simple horizontal bar chart and comparing distances.

Pie charts only work for large differences, which geeks call semi-quantitative comparisons. If you want a quantitative comparison with a pie chart, then you have to mark the percentages on it, so you might as well use a table (or a bar chart). A whole row of pie charts is even worse than one pie chart.

Adding a third dimension and shading just makes a pie chart prettier but harder to interpret. Making it transparent (like you can in MS Excel) reduces it to “dancing bearware” – a gee-whiz effect that add nothing but hoopla.

Practical Rules for Using Color in Charts

In 2004 Stephen Few wrote a book called Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten. In a 13 page paper on Practical rules for using color in charts he discusses and illustrates nine rules of graphics, which are:

Rule 1: If you want different objects of the same color in a table or graph to look the same, make sure that the background (the color that surrounds them) is consistent. (A gradient background just adds confusion).

Rule 2: If you want objects in a table or graph to be easily seen, use a background color that contrasts sufficiently with the object.

Rule 3: Use color only when needed to serve a particular communication goal.

Rule 4: Use different colors only when they correspond to differences of meaning in the data. (Adding a different color for each country to a bar chart adds nothing when you already have identified their names).

Rule 5: Use soft, natural colors to display most information, and bright colors and/or dark colors to highlight information that requires greater attention. (He gives an example of palette with eight soft natural and bright highlight colors).

Rule 6: When using color to encode a sequential range of quantitative values, stick with a single hue (or a small set of closely related hues) and vary intensity from pale colors for low values to increasingly darker and brighter colors for high values.

Rule 7: Non-data components of tables and graphs should be displayed just visibly enough to perform their role, but not more so, for excessive salience could cause them to distract attention from the data. (The scales and borders should not visually overwhelm your data).

Rule 8: To guarantee that most people who are colorblind can distinguish groups of data that are color coded, avoid using a combination of red and green in the same display. (About 10% of men cannot tell red from green, and identify traffic lights by position only!)

Rule 9: Avoid using visual effects in graphs. (A plain bar chart is preferable to one with three-dimensional rods).

Monday, September 8, 2008

Recent formats for brief presentations: Lightning Talks, Pecha Kucha, and Ignite

Lightning Talks are brief presentations (typically just 5 minutes) given at a single session of a conference or other forum. They may have started back in 2000 at Yet Another Perl Conference (YAPC). Mark Jason Dominus organized a session with a series of 5 minute talks and then showed up with a gong to enforce the time limit. According to the Wikipedia the tradition of short talks at programming conferences actually goes back further, at least to 1997. Lightning Talks are an excellent format for fitting a variety of viewpoints into a meeting.

Generally there are no limits on the visual aids that can be used for Lightning Talks. There may be none, just still images, or even images plus video. Some brave souls even have (gasp) tried live demonstrations of software. There is a YouTube video of an excellent Lightning Talk on “Ubiquitous Offline Shopping” by Wesley Chun from the 2008 Python conference. There also is a longer YouTube video on “Race Driving 101” by Joe Nuxoll which consists of a 4 minute presentation with still images followed by an amazing driver’s eye-view video of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.

However, there also are two more recent formats which add two further and sillier constraints:

(1) exactly 20 still images
(2) each still image shown for exactly either 20 or 15 seconds.

Pecha Kucha (Japanese for “chit chat”, or the sound of conversation) began in 2003. It was devised by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham in Tokyo as a night for young designers to show their work in public. They came up with a “patented” formula of 20 images for 20 seconds each, so each presentation was exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds long. Daniel H. Pink wrote approvingly about Pecha Kucha in Wired magazine back in 2007, and then Garr Reynolds also blogged about it.

Ignite is a heresy of Pecha Kucha devised in Seattle in 2006 by Brady Forrest and Bre Pettis. They decided that each image instead should run for only 15 seconds, so each presentation would be exactly 5 minutes long. Both formats unfortunately have been spreading like kudzu or meth labs.

Fixing both the number of images and the time for each image is silly. It is just a kludge: a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem. Usually a kludge just solves one problem by introducing another. In this case it fixes the global problem of getting through an evening program by screwing up the individual presentations. A fixed timing of 15 or 20 seconds per image is a reasonable way of setting up a photo album to run by itself in a digital picture frame. It is a lousy way to force a human being to do a presentation. Personally I don’t see any advantage to being drafted into the PowerPoint Marines Military Marching Band.

Now, there is actually nothing new about the advantage of a brief presentation format. In 1996 Ron Hoff wrote a book called Say It in Six (subtitled How to say exactly what you mean in six minutes or less). Hoff in turn borrowed the brief format from Toastmasters International. Their Competent Communication basic manual teaches how to do public speaking via a series of 10 speeches. Eight of those speeches have time limits of 5 to 7 minutes. Counting an over-run allowance of 30 seconds, their upper limit is 7 minutes and 30 seconds. Now, I’m not sure if that speech limit goes all the way back to the founding of Toastmasters in 1924. I do know that they have not changed it for the past 25 years!