E.T. Was Here

Trevor and I spent the day at an Edward Tufte seminar course, which was worth it even if only for the books and the fanboy factor. He’s a great hero of mine; he’s influenced my thinking about semiotics, information, communication, and probably several other topics.

The course attracted about four hundred or five hundred people in a basement ballroom in a downtown hotel, two huge projection screens, an excellent voice projection system, and Tufte’s very big personality. He had started before the designated opening time, and he rocked through the morning session at high intensity; I learned a lot just from observing him (the actual points he was making constituted a side benefit). Quite simply, Tufte is a genius of the design and presentation of information. He’s developed a patter that distills his work in the four books (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations and Beautiful Evidence (not yet in print) ) in a captivating six-hour monologue (“Questions only during office hours!”). He’s amazing.

At the first break, I presented a book for autographing, and — thinking of a twist on my prized Lawrence Lessig digital autograph — asked for his audio autograph, which I recorded on my digital voice recorder. Unfortunately, it picked up tons of handling noise (that WS-200S is terrific, but it must be quite still to record cleanly). The clattery version of Tufte’s audio autograph is here, but don’t download it unless you really want to.

When I replayed the first try and observed that it had not produced a good example, I ventured to Prof. Tufte again and asked his indulgence for another go. That one produced the following audio autograph: long version, short version.

After lunch, Trevor and I were psyched for Prof. Tufte to apply the knockout blow, but it seemed to us both that he was not as lively, not as powerful in the second half. I suggested to Trevor that in the morning, Tufte was blowing us away with his genius, whereas in the second half he was being a genius, and that was something of a letdown. Trevor thought that maybe he needed a nap (this was the second of two consecutive all-day gigs in Chicago). I noted, too, that a large part of the afternoon session revolves around his commentary on the Columbia space shuttle disaster, and that topic does not lend itself well to his barbed irony. He could project somber determination that this not happen again, or fiery outrage that bureaucracy triumphed over the lives of valiant explorers — but dry wit concerning the pointless (if perhaps inevitable) deaths of the Columbia astronauts doesn’t, to my estimate, do justice to their memory or to Tufte’s own insight into how poor information design obstructed the engineers’ assessment of the damage the falling foam caused to the shuttle wing. Since Tufte’s indictment of PowerPoint appears in his presentation as the coup de grâce, the macabre feeling of learning about presentation software over the graves of the astronauts brought the course to an uneasy ending.

We venture to criticize the presentation because it was so intensely impressive (especially, I think, for one who has not already quaffed so deeply at the tap of Tufte’s wisdom). He is a grandmaster of presentation, and on the El on the ride home, our minds were buzzing with ideas from sitting in with the hundreds of other learners today. Trevor said that if he were running any for-profit entity, any business involving presentations, that everyone from the company would take this course. I just wish I could assign it to my students. He’s amazing (Tufte, not Trevor. I mean, Trevor’s amazing, too, but not in the same way as E.T.).

1 comment / Add your comment below

  1. Very astute observations, IMHO, AKMA. I had the pleasure of attending the course about a year ago, and had similar reactions.

    I made one other observation that day. Tufte spent quite some time talking about Richard Feynman’s role in the Challenger inquiry. I happen to have had the privilege of having had Feynman come to my undergraduate institution for a fairly informal chat with the junior and senior physics majors. (This was about two years before the Challenger disaster.) Like most anyone else who ever saw him talk (apparently), I found Feynman to be engaging, personable, and possessed of a *huge* personality. And bright, too. All very much like Tufte. (Tufte’s physical presence and appearance also reminded me of Feynman’s — or, at least, of my *memory* of Feynman’s presence and appearance.) Hearing and watching Tufte talk about Feynman in a way that reminded me of my memory of Feynman — well, it’s too early in the morning for me to go down that meta-memory road effectively, but I think you get the idea.

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