Monthly Archives: September 2004

Brilliant data displays

Minard's map of Napoleon's March on MoscowMichael Friendly’s Gallery of Data Visualization contains a number of great data displays (and some not too good), including a link to an interesting page on versions of Minard’s map of Napoleon’s march on Moscow. Readers of Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information will recognize much of what is here, but it was news to me that Florence Nightingale achieved at least some of her fame from her clever use of Coxcomb charts.
The site suffers from a few dead links, though. One of those that worked is the link to the CyberAtlas project. Enjoy!

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Less confusion in The Confusion

Neal Stephenson: The Confusion (Volume Two of The Baroque Cycle)

I just finished The Confusion, the second volume of The Baroque Cycle (and it really is three books, you can’t start at volume two or three) and liked it much more than the first volume. Where the first volume was confusing in its storyline and a tiny little bit pretentious in its wealth of researched detail, the second volume is more lighthearted and readable. There is much more swashbuckling, centering on the picareque of Jack Shaftoe meandering through Asia and Latin America with a merry and eventually shrinking Cabal of conspirators, and a hint of the creation of a world-wide system of currencies and trade, with Eliza’s global financial machinations. But Stephenson has a problem with endings – like Norse sagas, his characters have a habit of suddenly disappearing.
Like Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, The Confusion suffers from not being able to get fully into style: The modernity of language and thought of the main characters as well as their frequent communications with each other decreases realism while speeding up the plot. I suspect Stephenson made a deliberate decision here – whether it is motivated by consideration for his tech-enabled audience or by a belief that people thought and acted very close to how we do today then doesn’t really matter.
The Confusion, much more than Quicksilver, was fun. It has an element of continuance, like the second of the Lord of the Rings movies, but also plenty of adventure, some humor, and a touch of magical realism. I liked it and have already ordered the last volume, The System of the World, which was published two days ago. Stay tuned.

Presenting with the Tablet PC

It always takes time to understand how to use a new technology – and my Tablet PC is no exception. I have tended to see the tablet facilites as a cool feature with limited use. But recently, I found a way to use it that takes advantages of the new features – partially inspired by John Seely Brown‘s “handwritten” Powerpoint slides.
Yesterday, I did a presentation at a Concours Summit at Gleneagles in Scotland. Like most presenters, I use Powerpoint from a laptop, and then use paper flipcharts to capture what the audience says and to facilitate interaction. That combination is not ideal: With electronic slides, you easily get bound to one particular sequence and pre-defined content, which is not very flexible. With paper flipcharts, you typically have to stand over on the side, with limited space for writing, and the audience, if large, can have problems seeing what you do. My idea was instead to use the Toshiba Tablet PC, with Windows Journal as an electronic flipchart. Aside from larger projection of what you are writing, it means you have captured the notes directly.
To make it work, I had to fiddle with some details:

  • when in tablet mode, the Toshiba has three programmable buttons available – and I set them to “arrow up” and “arrow down” (to flip Powerpoint slides) and the middle one to alt-ESC (to jump between Powerpoint and Journal). (Incidentally, I tried with alt-TAB, which is what I normally use to jump between applications, but Powerpoint will screw that up when in presentation mode)
  • set up Powerpoint in presentation mode, changing the cursor to a pen with some vivid color, such as red
  • get a lectern, so that the laptop is at a comfortable level for writing – you need to see the audience, not lean over your computer
  • set the screen to landscape mode, and pay attention to orientation, so that the picture does not end up upside down or sideways on the large screen
  • close down all other applications except Powerpoint and Journal
  • lock the on/off button to avoid accidentally hitting it and suddenly shutting down the computer
  • PRACTICE! (to make it look natural)
The main advantage of doing presentations this way is that you naturally (at least after a little practice) get into a more relaxed way of presenting, using the pen to circle details on the slides, and flipping over to Journal to capture notes and make drawings or diagrams to illustrate points that you don’t have in your presentation. A side benefit was that I could quickly tidy up the notes after the presentation, print them as a PDF file, and e-mail them.
The whole exercise worked well enough that I will do presentations that way in the future. It makes for a much livelier and more flexible presentation style, and can be a way to generate interaction with the audience. While the technology initially may get a little in the way, since it is unfamiliar to the audience, Journal and the tablet PC writing tools are sufficiently similar to paper writing that the “wow” effect quickly subsides.
And, of course, it looks cool. That’s not unimportant….

Risks of open forum disaster recovery

Dan Bricklin‘s elegant essay on the lessons for system design and use of on-line and other information sources (Learning From Accidents and a Terrorist Attack) is very informative and makes some excellent points around the ability and availability of the general public as a participant in disaster recovery. It nicely validates what every IT prophet has been saying, in one form or another, since the early 90s: Increases in communications and information processing capability will lead to more consumption of that resource, enabling organizations to quickly respond to outside changes – indeed of “spontaneous” organizations to quickly form to address issues. We communicate rather than plan, and can mobilize quickly. Dan makes some great points around what this means for systems and component design.
However, there is one problem with using open tools, such as RSS feeds, blogs, wikis and open conference calls: Their very openness makes them a path for a future terrorist. A group of terrorists wanting to do something akin to the 9/11 action could now learn from what happened then, and include a number of on-line participants with a role in spreading misinformation, increasing fear and diverting resources. There were instances of misinformation during 9/11 – I remember news items about a carful of bombs being stopped on some bridge in New York for instance – and the news channels normally apply some form of fact-checking. While the Wikipedia model works great when there is time – and people check changes against a contributor’s past behavior, I think we should be careful with too much openness in a time-pressured situation. Some form of validation needs to be in place, perhaps some form of peer-validation that draws on the public’s increased communications capability one wants to tap into in the first place.
(Also posted at RISKS Digest 23.52)

Atomic attacks and the origins of the Internet

Steve Fox’s request for IT myths made me remember something my students tell me whenever I talk about the beginning of the Internet: That it was designed to withstand an atomic attack (through redundancy and automatic rerouting.)
That is a myth which refuses to die – and it may be that the fact that Internet and messaging worked after the September 11, 2001 attacks may have something to do with it. Though Paul Baran mentioned this as a side effect in a paper on packet switching, it was not a factor in deciding on creating Arpanet – until someone came across Baran’s paper and created the myth years later. (Reference: Hafner, K. and M. Lyon (1996). Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet.)
The main motivation for the Internet, according to the same source, was getting rid of the need for multiple terminals – that is, if you were using a remote machine via a telephone line, you had to have a dedicated terminal to it. Initially the hosts were going to interface directly, but for performance reasons, a dedicated subnet with PDP-8s was set up. BBN got the contract.
And the rest, as they say, is history. But I have to convince my students. Every year.