Thursday, 29 December 2016

On creating a "companion web site" for talks

My last research talk, I tried an experiment during the talk. I created a "companion web site" for the talk, which is an online handout including slides, code, links to papers, and a bullet-point abstract. Here's my first try at an online handout.

The inspiration was Tufte's quixotic diatribe against Powerpoint, which recommends written handouts instead of slides. The web site is an attempt to adapt his idea to an all-open all-Internet all-the-time age. Seeing as I have no intention of printing out several hundred paper copies of a handout and carrying them thousands of miles to a research meeting, and that most people have laptops anyway.

Why the handout? Lectures are limited because speech is linear. If we are conversing, when I haven't understood what you have said, I can ask you to go back. When you lecture, I cannot do that. If I stop a moment to think more deeply about something that you have said, I run the risk of missing your next point.

The handout is designed to help with this. By giving you a written summary, and also my slides, you can "go back" and re-read a point that you may have missed. A second role for the online handout is to help you find more details after the talk, to find exactly which papers, which code, and so on, I was referring to.

If the handout really helps, then it raises an even more interesting question. Why the slides?
Tufte argues vehemently against slides as a replacement for written text. Slides have low resolution, which encourages poor statistical graphics, and encourages hiding details which are vital to assessing an argument in science and engineering. Also, most arguments do not fit into bullet points, because bullet points can convey only linear relationships and nesting. The narrative that you are trying to convey in your talk is likely to be more complex.

In research conferences, we already have a handout for each of our talks, the research paper. So maybe we be presenting scientific talks with no slides at all? If not, why not? Sometimes at a conference, I'll skim the paper during the talk if I am starting to get confused. Sometimes that helps. But papers are information dense, with long sentences full of qualifying statements designed to forestall potential reviewer criticisms. It can be hard to read dense text while also remaining aware about what the speaker is currently saying. Sometimes I think this a blind spot of Tufte's, that he leans too heavily on information density as a measure of the quality of a display.

We can think of the sequence [ slides, audio of talk, online handout, paper ] as attempting to convey the same information at different levels of density. This allows the reader/viewer to choose the appropriate level. But slides and audio are both low density. Do we really need two low density ways of conveying the information?

Another way of asking the question is: What are slides good for, when they are good? Tufte does seem to accept that good slides are possible. He admits that perhaps the top 10% of presenters aren't harmed by Powerpoint's cognitive style, as their own presenting style is strongly enough developed that they impose it on the software, affordances be damned.

In the past couple of years, I've been experimenting with different slide designs. I may even starting to understand what principles I am aiming at in my slide designs. But I think that's a topic for another day.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A Suggestion for Scotland

This will be a big year for the United Kingdom. In September, Scotland will hold a referendum to decide whether to remain in the UK or to become an independent country. For several years, support for independence has remained steady at around 33%, but some polls have shown that support for independence may be increasing. For my American friends, I personally think that this op-ed is a good primer.

As a foreigner, I cannot vote in the referendum, and rightly so. But I would like to humbly propose a third option for Scotland, just as a suggestion. A middle ground between the risks of complete independence, and the current reality of being yoked to Westminster.

I suggest that come September, Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom and join the United States as the 51st state.

This would be welcomed all throughout the US, I guarantee it. Americans love Scotland. We really, really love Scotland, even if we can’t find it on a map. There are more people of Scottish ancestry in America than there are in Scotland. We have Scottish festivals all over the country, with kilts, bagpipes, Highland dance — the whole works, except only for haggis (which is actually illegal to import) and Irn Bru (that stuff’s minging). My point is, Americans really, really like Scotland. Maybe the EU would dither about accepting an independent Scotland, but the US would accept Scotland in a New York minute.

Polls show that Scots are concerned about their economic future. Joining the US would be great for Scotland’s economy. By joining into a single trading area with the United States, it would be easier for American tourists to come to Scotland, and for Scottish haggis to come to the US (I love that stuff). Also, you need to consider the film industry. We spent $70 million making a movie about the last time Scotland won independence. Don’t think we won’t do it again. We put a Scot into outer space. Heck, we even made up a Scottish smurf! The fact is, over the past 50 years, Hollywood has done more for Scotland than London has. Join with us, and we can do more, together.

Now, some might argue that my suggestion is impractical. After all, Scotland is a long way from the US. (Americans: you might need a map for this part.)  But with modern telecommunications, there’s no reason this should be an issue. In fact, Washington, DC, is actually 1000 miles closer to Edinburgh than it is to Honolulu.

I can understand that some Scots might be concerned about this proposal. After all, Washington DC has been pretty dysfunctional lately. Some might ask: Are these really the people you want to join your political future with? First, it’s important to point out that the US Congress makes up only 0.000017% of the population. Most Americans are more sensible. Second, and most important, this is why we need your help. It’s true that there are a lot of perfectly nice people in the US whose political views are batshit crazy. But it’s also true that the country is deeply divided. The crazy people are really only about 49.8% of the population. Even though Scotland’s population is small, in a politically polarised country, it’s enough to tip the balance. Think about it: The US State of Scotland would probably receive 9 electoral votes. The US presidential election of 2000 was decided by only 5. Just think about the good that Scotland could have done for the entire world.

Clearly, this is one of the most difficult and important political issues in Scotland’s history. Honest people of good intentions will come to different opinions. But I hope that I’ve convinced you that this third option is one that’s worthy of serious consideration.