Low Information Density: Why You Should Never Attend a Tufte “Course”

Let me save you $400, 6 hours of your life, and considerable frustration by imparting upon you the key takeaways from the Tufte course I attended here in Seattle last week.

I may have gone in with hopes too high. I expected him to discuss the general principles of visualizing data, to work through some examples of information displayed poorly, and most importantly how it could be improved using said principles. But we didn’t get that. Instead, we got a rambling collection of the fetishes and grievances Tufte has built up over the past few decades, including:

  • An obsession with maps. He thinks maps are the purist example of good data visualization. Sure, they’ve stood the test of time; yes, Google Maps is one of the most widely used websites. But are maps really such a great metaphor for summarizing data? It’s much easier to visualize objects in the physical world than it is to communicate abstract notions such as volumes, times, averages, etc. A mouse can find its way around a maze, but good luck getting it to understand your multivariate regression.
  • Blaming the tools, not training the workman. I knew we were bound to get some PowerPoint bashing, but I didn’t quite appreciate what an existential issue he has with the product, its creators, or the entire software industry. He talks about the “software industry” the same way you might talk about “the military industrial complex.” He actually has halfway decent joke about how there are only two industries that refer to their customers as “users” (software and illegal drugs, har har.) But his vitriol goes so far that you’d think his father died at the hands of a PowerPoint animation.

    Farther down the rabbit hole, he recommends using Latex over Word and R/SAS/JMP over Excel. Because what people really need is a new, more complicated tool instead of learning how to use their current tools better.
  • Magical Screens. He has some bizarre theory about how new 4k screens are going to change the way people interact with data, as if pixel density was the limiting factor we were coming up against. This wasn’t a passing observation — he had about 20 minutes dedicated to how much better screen resolutions are getting and I still have no idea why it matters.
  • Life is $GOOG. While he used “marketing” as a pejorative term about 20 times during the day, Tufte has no problem extoling the virtues of the biggest advertising company in the world. From Google Maps to Google News, he’s tickled by everything coming out of Mountain View. He even spent about 15 minutes on this project of his where you can create a collage of Google Image results. While I don’t know what the point of it was, I did enjoy making my own collage with it.
  • The only thing in the known universe potentially more awe-inspiring than search advertising is an $800 device that lets you check Facebook and watch cat videos. I’m of course referring to the iPad, which along with everything else made by Apple is created only with organic materials in fair trade factories and is filled with pixie dust and hugs.

Toward the end of the day, he started getting even weirder. He had this soliloquy on presentation tips that morphed into a philosophical piece on how to treat your fellow man. Some of his insights included “show up on time” and “write down questions people ask you.” I half expected him to say, “and wear a tie — you see these kids these days in their jeans and their hoodies and their messenger bags and it just doesn’t look professional.” And the whole thing was him reading several paragraphs of text from a couple of slides; here he was giving a presentation on how to give a good presentation while committing one of the cardinal presentation sins — meta.

And just when I thought we were done, he left us with this parting gem: “never hire an MBA.”

Well, Ed, the feeling’s mutual. I’d never hire you again either.

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