What PowerPoint Hath Wrought

In many offices today, PowerPoint is everywhere, and so is a particular culture of communication that has accompanied its use for more than 20 years. A few months ago, a connection on LinkedIn shared that his company was taking a page from Amazon by “moving away from PowerPoint for most meetings and important decisions.” Given the heavy price we have paid for choosing bullet points and slides as our primary mode of sharing information the past 25 years, the fact that other companies (and perhaps a new generation of professionals) are following Amazon’s lead is a welcome development.

PowerPoint is so ingrained in our culture today that many may not know that professionals of various types raised real concerns about its growing use in the 1990s. Viewed as a blessing at first for allowing people to create slide decks more efficiently, it was not long before the characteristic PowerPoint design spread from sales pitches and executive reviews to other parts of the professional landscape, crowding out more effective ways of sharing information. (In my profession, the distorting effect PowerPoint had on meetings and documentation was already branded PowerPoint engineering by the late 1990s.)

Like a prescription drug, PowerPoint users should be aware of its side effects, and one of the best warning labels users can read is the work of Edward Tufte.

How Pitching Out Corrupts Within

Few authors have argued what PowerPoint hath wrought more forcefully than Edward Tufte, Professor Emeritus at Yale University and expert in data visualization and the study of presenting information. (Yes, there is an art and a science to presenting information.) A great place to start is his none too subtle The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within (2006), a concise, 31-page booklet that is actually a separately published chapter from his book Beautiful Evidence (2006).

In this booklet, Tufte argues that the fundamental layout of PowerPoint presentations “reduces the analytical quality of serious presentations of evidence.” In other words, the characteristic design of PowerPoint presentations—bullet points, sequential slides, low information content per slide—constrains and distorts the very information that presenters are trying to convey. (This may be obvious to anyone who has sat through their share of PowerPoint presentations.)

Tufte further argues that PowerPoint is presenter-oriented and not content-oriented or even audience-oriented, and that it “turns information into a sales pitch and presenters into marketeers,” which “harms the quality of thought” for both the authors and consumers of presentations. Put another way, while PowerPoint makes it easier for presenters to put slide decks together, its use distorts the information presented and hampers thinking about that same information.

While Tufte’s arguments may seem academic at first, they become deadly serious when he examines a case where an overreliance on PowerPoint negatively affected communication in a life or death situation.

Space Shuttle Columbia

On January 16, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted-off for what would be its final launch. At nearly a minute-and-a-half into flight, a piece of insulating foam broke from its external fuel tank, striking and mortally damaging Columbia’s left wing. While the foam strike was later observed on video of the launch, the damage to the left wing remained undetected during the shuttle’s 16-day mission. Then, on February 1, during its planned reentry into the atmosphere, the shuttle broke apart, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

While in orbit, engineers from Boeing (the shuttle’s manufacturer) and NASA analyzed the launch video and tried to assess the likelihood that the foam strike had damaged the shuttle’s wing. Ultimately, Boeing prepared three reports, or PowerPoint pitches (the term used by NASA engineers). According to Tufte, whose analysis was included in the final Columbia Accident Investigation report (page 191), the PowerPoint slides “provided [a] mixed reading of the threat to the spacecraft” with lower-level bullets (in the requisite smaller fonts) conveying “doubts and uncertainties” while “executive summaries and big-bullet conclusions were quite optimistic.” In short, senior managers underestimated the threat to the spacecraft due to the optimism conveyed in the slides. From The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint:

Convinced that the reports [the slides] indicated no problem rather than uncertain knowledge, high-level NASA officials decided that the Columbia was safe and, furthermore, that no additional investigations were necessary.

By declaring Columbia safe, efforts to determine if the shuttle was damaged were thwarted.

Several NASA engineers had hoped that the military would photograph the shuttle in orbit with high-resolution spy cameras, which would have easily detected the damage, but even that checkup was thought unnecessary given the optimism of the [three] Boeing reports. And so the Columbia orbited for 16 days with a big undetected hole in its wing.

In the end, the use of PowerPoint was not directly responsible for the fate of Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew. Nevertheless, the pitch out culture arguably did play a role in distorting information at a time when access to clear evidence was urgently needed.

Not every critique that Tufte offers is tied to events as fateful as Space Shuttle Columbia. I highlight this case because, as a practicing engineer, it grabbed my attention years ago. Nonetheless, Tufte provides much evidence that using PowerPoint to share information has significant, far reaching drawbacks, and that those drawbacks ultimately outweigh the benefits (real or perceived) of its use.

So, if you are a frequent PowerPoint user, like the warning label on a prescription, read Edward Tufte. Moreover, if you are a PowerPoint user and a practicing engineer, stop right now and read Edward Tufte.

Up next: A world before PowerPoint and some recommendations for kicking the PowerPoint habit, once and for all.

Photo credit: EsaRiutta at pixabay.com.

Ethanol on the Cob

“Corn is Better Food than Fuel,” read a headline in the September issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine (v.139, No 9, p. 11).  Having siphoned gas from a pickup truck in my youth—an efficient way to transfer gas to a dirt bike—I agree.  I’ll have the corn, please.  Hold the fuel.

All kidding aside, the piece in Mechanical Engineering was sharing findings from a National Science Foundation-funded study conducted by University of Illinois researchers Meredith Richardson and Praveen Kumar who concluded that the net social and economic worth of food corn production greatly exceeds that of biofuel corn production.  Richard Yuretich from the National Science Foundation summed up the researchers’ results in a post from the university:

Using corn as a fuel source seems to be an easy path to renewable energy.  However, this research shows that the environmental costs are much greater, and the benefits fewer, than using corn for food.

A couple months later, Mechanical Engineering published a response from a reader who suggested that it would be regrettable if corn based ethanol were abandoned in the United States over the food versus fuel argument (“Don’t Knock Ethanol,” Letters & Comments, November 2017).  The reader concluded:

If we were to give up the idea of corn-to-ethanol because of the food versus fuel argument, we would also have to give up all uses of corn for any purpose besides food.

So, should corn be used for food or should it be used for fuel?  And why, in 2017, is there a debate over the use of corn in the first place?

The answer to the second question lies in two laws passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the President of the United States at the time, George W. Bush.  They were the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.  These laws led to the creation, then expansion, of the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, “a national policy that requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace or reduce the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel, heating oil or jet fuel,” according to an EPA overview of the program.  It is a result of the RFS program that most gasoline sold in the United States contains 10% ethanol.

Absent the RFS program, we would debate the use of corn the way we debate the use of any other food product having alternative uses.  That is to say, there would be no debate at all.  As with other commodities, prices would direct the production and distribution of supply toward demand.  And so it remains with corn.  Despite appearances, the corn based ethanol debate is not first and foremost a debate over whether corn should be used as food or as fuel.  Rather, the underlying question is whether the increased demand for ethanol created by the Renewable Fuel Standard is doing more societal harm than good by distorting the market for corn.  Hence, studies that examine the social and economic worth of corn as food versus corn as fuel are not making an argument to limit the use of corn to food only, but are providing evidence that the RFS comes with a societal cost.  Therefore, to suggest that the results of such studies are advocating for the use of corn as food and food alone is a distraction from the fundamental question of whether the RFS does more societal harm than good.

If one wishes to advocate for the production of corn based ethanol, a more fitting approach would be to quantify the benefits of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which were meant to include reducing greenhouse gas emissions and U.S. reliance on imported oil, then compare those benefits to the societal costs of the program.  Even better would be for our elected representatives to critically examine these societal costs and benefits before passing such far-reaching legislation, make a compelling case that the benefits will surpass the costs, then agree to repeal the legislation if the net benefits do not materialize.  (Hope springs eternal.)

Photo credit:  MichaelGaida at pixabay.com.

Making Progress—from XKCD

XKCD is a “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.”  In other words, its a comic that appeals to engineers, a profession that exemplifies romance, sarcasm, math, and language, though not necessarily in that order.

Sometime before the turn of the century, for better or for worse, the spreadsheet replaced the scientific calculator as the engineer’s tool of choice.  Hence, spreadsheet humor amuses engineers.  So too does PowerPoint humor, though that is just as likely to make us cry.

So, for the engineers (and accountants), we have Making Progress from XKCD.

The Viability of Solar—And Everything Else

Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, publishes a monthly feature called “The Vault,” where decades old articles are reprinted to offer perspectives from the past.

In the most recent issue (October 2017, Vol. 139, No. 10), the editors included a forty-year-old article titled, “New Career Paths in Engineering, Applications of Solar Energy,” by Lloyd O. Herwig, which provided an overview of the projected economic viability of various solar power technologies circa 1977.  The article was a reminder of how often the economic viability of up and coming technologies is only 10 to 20 years away, to which one might add, “And they always will be.”

Acknowledging that forecasts of economic viability are often wrong is not a criticism of such projections per se.  To his credit, Dr. Herwig stated that the projections he was citing in 1977 were themselves based on forecasts of “technology development and competing alternative fossil and nuclear-fueled plants.”  Absent a crystal ball, how would he or anyone else have predicted the events that would lead to a generations worth of low cost energy at the very height of a widely perceived energy crisis?

What is so frequently misunderstood about projections is that their benefits arguably lie less in their accuracy a decade or two later, but in the work of developing and maintaining them in the first place.  Forecasting requires gathering data, considering multiple scenarios, challenging assumptions, and estimating risks, which in turn can be used to develop contingency plans and improve the speed and effectiveness of decision making in the face of uncertainty.  At the same time, we do ourselves and the practice of forecasting a disservice when we either (a) unquestioningly believe our projections, investing too much in their accuracy over the long haul, or (b) dismiss them outright because “they’re always wrong.”

When done well, forecasting is as much about what is happening now as it is about the next 10 to 20 years, something that is worth considering when investing in projections of economic viability or in their results.

Photo credit:  skeeze at pixabay.com.

Facebook Saves Humanity

As an engineer, there are few stories that amused me more than a recent report that our end would come not at the hands of Skynet, a group of “defense network computers, new, powerful, hooked into everything, trusted to run it all,” but at the hands of Facebook, the social networking site launched from a Harvard dorm room.  The first reports were ominous and entertaining:

Facebook shuts down robots after they invent their own language

It finally happened.  An Artificial Intelligence (chatbots in this case) was on the verge of seizing control of everything, but thank God someone had the presence of mind to shut it all down before Bob and Alice (the bots) launched emojis at a billion Facebook users, creating an international incident.  The best part of the story?  Bob and Alice’s conversation having been taught to barter, then having invented their own “bizarre form of communication.”

[Begin transcript]

Bob:  i can i i everything else ……….
Alice:  balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob:  you i everything else ……….
Alice:  balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob:  i i can i i i everything else ……….
Alice:  balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob:  i ….
Alice:  what to do with humans?

[Experiment terminated]

Okay, I added the last line, but you get the point.  To say I was amused by Bob and Alice’s conversation, not to mention the tone of the article, would be an understatement.  Personally, I thought it was a publicity stunt from Facebook.  (“You’re buying Whole Foods, Amazon?  We have Skynet.  Checkmate.”)  No surprise the web was immediately awash with stories refuting the claim, which may have set a record for Snopes.  (Verdict?  False.)

As entertaining as the initial reporting was, it also underscored our fascination with tales of global apocalypse and our propensity to extrapolate future outcomes by oversimplifying the behavior of almost everything, natural or man-made.  For example, we need only liken the human brain to a computer and it’s a short step to convince ourselves that our robot overlords will take our jobs (Kevin Drum, 2013).  (Interesting that our robots will definitely take our jobs, but probably won’t kill us.  I’m with The Terminator franchise on this one.  I don’t think our robots will settle for our jobs any more than Henry VIII settled for an annulment.)

Oversimplify the behavior of something and it’s easy to propose a runaway theory of anything.  Whether it’s runaway population growth in the 1960s or the runaway depletion of oil reserves in the 1970s or runaway global warming and artificial intelligence today, propose a runaway (or hockey stick) theory of something and it’s a straightforward exercise to posit catastrophe on a global scale, rather than what we have in reality experienced—trade-offs between costs and benefits, amidst uncertainty, over time.

Personally, I’d be more concerned about a runaway comet.  Not much to extrapolate there.  Just, “BANG!”  Maybe we can get Bob and Alice to work that one.  (“Comets have a comet to me to me to me ….”)

Photo credit:  OpenClipart-Vectors at pixabay.com.