How PowerPoint contributed to the Columbia re-entry disaster

There are only a handful of authors whose books have been pivotal to my career. Perhaps one day I’ll write a definitive list. Some that I can think of right now are;

Strange mix, but there we are! It’s been a long time since I’ve read any of them, and, to be honest, hadn’t expected to come across any new work by any of the authors (at least two of them are dead, after all!). So it was a delight to come across Edward Tufte’s blog, and to see that he is still very much involved in his field – in a very substantial and dramatic way.

Edward Tufte is younger than I had assumed him to be, from my early encounter with his work. He is an American statistician and Professor Emeritus of statistics, information design, interface design and political economy at Yale University. He has been described by The New York Times as “the da Vinci of Data”, and by Business Week as “the Galileo of graphics”. He is an expert in the presentation of informational graphics such as charts and diagrams, and is a fellow of the American Statistical Association.

When I was completing my PhD, I was lent a copy of his seminal book, The visual display of quantitative information, I can very honestly say (and I doubt if anyone would take issue with this) that I have never been enthralled by a statistics book – and I can’t really say I was by Tufte’s book, but no-one could dispute that this one made you realise how important it was going to be to you from the very first few pages.

[ED: With hindsight, I’d like to correct this last paragraph – I don’t really know why I wrote it that way?  Actually, I have read statistics books and been enthralled.  When I was 16, I embarked on my A-levels, and the headmaster insisted that I study mathematics as I’d done quite well at them in the previous O-level exams.  Very quickly, it became obvious that I did not enjoy integration, differentiation, and matrix algebra.  So, I was given the opportunity to take statistics instead of the more classical areas.  Understanding probability theory, the analysis of variance, and the ways in which data can be manipulated and distorted, has had a big impact on my appreciation of the world and in my work.  Crikey, I’ve written two statistics textbooks myself {1, 2}, so something must have inspired me!  In fact, the sense I had with Tufte’s book was one of being overwhelmed.  It made SO much sense, that it seemed beyond my grasp.  I don’t want that to put you off – it was the space that I was in at the time. Added: 7th May 2015]

If you would like to understand a little of the importance of Tufte’s work and, if you EVER use PowerPoint to do presentations, then I strongly recommend visiting his blog and looking at this excerpt from one of his books: PowerPoint does Rocket Science. Be prepared to feel a little angry as the story unfolds!

If Prof Tufte should ever read this little tribute, I should like to say thank you. Your work influenced me profoundly and, especially in the earlier part of my own career, it was frequently in my mind and undoubtedly led to some of my own minor successes.

Best wishes

{1} On Route to Perfection: Guide to Achieving Six Sigma
{2} Six Sigma and the Product Development Cycle

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