Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review of Beautiful Evidence

Beautiful Evidence Beautiful Evidence by Edward R. Tufte

My review

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

First a comment that I read this book because of all the buzz on sparklines a few years ago.

As for my review itself: I liked the emphasis on the power of the human vision system to process large amounts of data quickly. The focus here, then, is on high information density with as much context as possible. Tufte really likes figures right next to related text, or even within the text. He likes scales on pictures, or perhaps well-known objects for context. Also, information to convey statistical significance is also considered important, and the ability to relate relationships, too. Summary: easily understood, easily available, honest, dense information is good.

I found the diatribes on PowerPoint and sculpture pedestals interesting. I did not think he presented convincing evidence against slide presentations. He could easily have handpicked so few example sources (even the dozens he had). I saw no claim against bias except a statement that they were "unbiased" selections. He chose some people claiming that slide presentations were responsible for the space shuttle Columbia disaster, including himself (if I remember correctly). Any claims of value for slide presentations were quickly dismissed by saying that important other folks found slide presentations bad.

I find it sad that he fights so hard against misrepresented information then proceeds to use diatribe, one-sided arguments, and psychological appeals with references to Soviet oppression as ways to state his case.

I think people want information summarized in many cases. Not everyone wants or should need to read a detailed report.

So maybe the better conclusion would be, "If you have a highly-visible and expensive risk of several people dying, maybe you should err on the side of caution and be willing to spend more time and money to make sure you are right." I think that's better than "PowerPoint kills people" (paraphrased by me).

I still do find it interesting to read the arguments for real tech reports, use of standard sentences and paragraphs, and so on. Also the complaint against "pitch culture". So, even though I disagree with the extremity of his position, I think there is a lot to learn here and think about.

Side note, it seems clear that he carefully laid out each page (or pair of facing pages) throughout the book with great attention to how to final physical product would look. In that sense, this book is definitely a work of art. I don't get the impression many technical books tech presentation so seriously.

View all my reviews.

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