Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book review: Presentation Zen Design

By none other than Garr Reynolds, of course.

This follow-up to the brilliant Presentation Zen (if you haven't bought it by now - what the hell are ya waiting for?) deals more with the practical aspect of making presentations, and so touches on a bit of design principles such as effective use of white space. The book is a veritable treasure trove of helpful sections, including effective use of fonts (brilliant), which I personally found to be very enlightening. Any version of Office is going to be loaded with 4.5 gajillion fonts, so a primer and a set of matching fonts for different occasions sure helps out a lot. Mucho props.

There's also a section of working with colors and selecting color schemes. While Nancy Duarte's Slide:ology contains more material on the nuts and bolts of color schemes, Garr's book more than makes up for it by detailing how you can extract color schemes from photographs, thereby taking advantage of the master colorist - Mother Nature. This is followed up by describing how to incorporate pictures - and video - in your presentation in order to more effectively communicate your story - including some photography tips by Scott Kelby.

Towards the end of the book, there are also some sample slides from various designers (Duarte Design being strongly represented) to show the reader how this can be incorporated in real life. This even includes some slides from a field not too distant from what I'm doing.

Overall, this is a great book and a worthy follow-up to Presentation Zen. I've only got two minor complaints; one being that the book appears at times to be somewhat on the heavy side with respect to Zen lessons. The other complaint is that it would've been great with an expanded section on how to use animation. Then again - that's where Nancy Duarte's book really shines.

Buy two copies - one for the office and one to keep around the house.

Monday, January 18, 2010

They sure saw me comin'...

At the moment, I'm on 50% paternity leave, which in theory means that my expected workload is cut in half. However, on Friday I finally realized that this is not true at all. A quick&dirty breakdown of my overall duties would look something like this: 50% teaching, 50% research.

Right. Back from fairytale-land. A more accurate description would have to include various administrative duties, very few of which are easily boxed into either category. In theory, the 50% reduction of duties should be spread equally across all categories. Let's see if it does:
  • Teaching: During the Spring semester, I am the course responsible for one 4th year topic. I also teach 1/3 of another 4th year course, plus perhaps one or two PhD specialization topics. Out of these, I am only relieved of the 1/3 - which rules, as my first and only choice as replacement accepted the position - which makes my teaching load for the semester significantly larger than 50%.
  • Administration: No reduction in workload at all.
  • Research: ...pretty much where my "workload" is reduced.

In other words; the only area where I feel a reduction in my workload is the area that I actually get credit for in the dept. annual reports.

They sure saw me coming.....

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Air Quality in Bergen charts

Well, here is a graph I found at, and it's a report over the air quality in Bergen. There are two automatic air-samplers in Bergen, one at Danmarksplass and one by the old town hall. The NO2 level and concentration of particles in two different sizes are measured. Each of the components is classified into four different categories, depending on the concentration (as shown in the chart below). The (total) air quality is the reported as one of the categories, depending on the most polluted of the three components. The chart below is from month of November 2009.

Some interesting data can be extracted from this graph. Like that November 2009 where approximately 30 hours longer at Rådhuset compared to Danmarksplass, but on average the years 2003 and 2009 where longer on Danmarksplass.

What I'm getting at here, is (again) that this isn't a very good graph. Personally, I think that they are missing a "no data" category or something, since November has a total of 720 hours, which none of the bars have. And, as I understand the data, the total of all categories isn't interesting, since they are all the same (only depending on how many days in the month). In fact, the interesting data here is the hours with elevated level of air pollution. And due to the large size of the normal (green) bars, the graph does not do a good job in presenting these data. So, here is my suggestion of a redesigned graph, focusing on comparing the data with elevated level of pollution. I opted for a three panel vertical Trellis chart:

To even better compare the individual values, a 1x4 vertical Trellis chart could also been used, wiyh  panels Rådhuset Nov 2009, Rådhuset average 2003-2009, Danmarksplass Nov 2009 and Danmarksplass average 2003-2009. Each panel with three horizontal bars with each of the different level of pollution. 

Another option would be to include a bar for the total hours with elevated pollution (sum of some, much og severely polluted categories).

Friday, January 15, 2010

Slidescapes and slideoramas

So I attempted some of the animation techniques I found in Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte. Specifically, I experimented with animating slide transitions to create the illusion of the slides being part of a panoramic view, or what Duarte calls slidescapes or slideoramas. I battle-tested it in my "sales pitch", first lecture of the semester, to show some connections and big-picture things, and let me tell you; I thought it was really cool. It beat the ever-loving crap of my old way of presenting timelines and connections.

Yes; Slide:ology is worth the samoleans you have to plunk down to get your grubby hands on the book.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 experiment

I recently received an invitation to put one of my articles on due to the inviter's claim that the contents in said article is of general interest to researchers in medical sciences. The page looks like a lo-rent, but what teh hell - I think I'm gonna give it a try and see if I can adapt Presentation Zen to this format. If it works, I massively increase my odds of getting citations for my work, and if it doesn't work, this might just count as "Popularization of Science", in which case it counts towards my standing on the department publication list. So it's all good.

I'll get in touch with my coauthors and see if we can make things happen.

Book review: The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

Yeah, yeah, yeah - Jobs is the head honcho of Apple, but he's also widely renowned as one of the most charismatic presenters ever. Garr Reynolds says so, as do enough other people to ensure that at least a fraction of the cheerleaders are from outside of the Jonestown/messianic cult of Apple fanatics and Jobs kool-aid drinkers.

And credit where credit is due - Jobs IS a fantastic presenter and public speaker with a distinctive style. That's not really something worth debating - dude's good.

The author of this book - one Carmine Gallo - claims to have distilled what makes a Steve Jobs presentation great and is offering this to the reader in "A three-part framework to wow your audience". Steve Jobs on a bottle, if ya will. That's a tall order for a book. What are the three parts - or acts as Gallo calls it - you might ask?
  • Act 1: Create the story. Plan in analog, focus on the audience and why they should care about your presentation, make simple, clutter-free slides and create twitter-like headlines.
  • Act 2: Deliver the experience. Put numbers into some kind of context for easier visualization of impact, use cool lingo and memorable catchphrases in order to stand out, and feel free to use props in order to give a physical demonstration if applicable.
  • Act 3: Refine and Rehearse. No further explanation required.

Those familiar with Presentation Zen know at this point that one-third of the book is snagged directly from Garr Reynolds, and at least 1/3 of what Gallo makes off of this book by right ought to end up in Reynolds's pockets. The only semi-original part of the first act is the twitter-headline thingy, which actually is a stroke of pure genious. By spending lots and lots of time creating twitter-like headlines, journalists just use the pre-digested headline provided by Jobs, essentially leaving Jobs in charge of his own media appearance. Admittedly very clever. As for act 2, Gallo "borrows" liberally from Presentation Zen once again, and the third act, with its riveting tales of how Steve Jobs makes his presentations look spontaneous and effortless, but how this is actually a byproduct of intense and long rehearsal hours....well gosh now......what's next? Do musicians rehearse before gigs?

By and large I don't really recommend this book although there are some cool parts, like the "make your own press" bit. Garr Reynolds has become the ABBA of presentation design in that everybody and their mother have jacked material from him without necessarily bothering to cite the source. This, plus the fact that Gallo spends way too much time plugging Apple products rather than the underlying principles of the Jobs presentations that launch them, makes this book at least a second-tier manual.

Another thing is that if you opt to buy this book rather than - repeated ad infinitum - Presentation Zen, and you actually follow the advice, you're probably screwed. What Steve Jobs can get away with, you can't, and while there's a section in the book on how you should dress (odd, I know), Gallo fails to mention that Steve Jobs comes off as quite smug and sometimes arrogant in his presentations. Moreover, he is constantly badmouthing the competition. Steve Jobs can do this because of who he is - given his track record and all - you can't. Especially in academia, where odds are that your brilliant solution/theorem/method is more likely to be a step further than the final answer. In order to get away with Steve Jobs' method of badmouthing the competition and - quite literally - introducing some opposition product as the antagonist (rather than simply as the competition), you need to have an enormous credibility, and an h-index approaching Nobel laureate status. Otherwise you'll just come off as a know-it-all douchebag. And if you're thinking of buying a book like this to model your presentation technique after, odds are that you're not of sufficient academic standing to get away with smugness, so just don't.

Plenty of books you'd be better off buying.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Deja vu all over again aftermath

Still stuck with the undesirable time frames for my lectures this semester despite a few more attempts to improve the odds of filling the seats. What's new however, is that the administration asshat never updated the course info on the central university web pages, resulting in quite a few emails from students that showed up to an empty classroom, wondering why I didn't show up. Now; it should be mentioned that had these students checked out the course page on it's learning, they'd have seen the message I posted a while ago with the new updated schedule, but the admin guy still absolutely sucks.

Amateur crap like that really should be beneath the institution of higher learning I'm a tenured faculty member of.

Design tip: Custom colors in Excel (97-2003)

As metioned in the comments section on the Slide:ology review, I've made myself a custom palette in Excel (2003, that is). Since this is the version available at work, I've become more and more frustrated by the colors available in Excel and spent too much time editing colors (see end of this post for "how-to" change colors in Excel).

Anyway, below is my current palette (left) and the standard Excel 2003 palette:

Let me explain the background for this. You can see that the top right colomns are identical in both paletts. The reasons for that is that shades of greys are cool, but mainly because I couldn't think of any useful colors to replace them with. Above the line, you see that the rest of my palett is of different shades of grey, red, blue, orange and greens in the rows. Good to have the options of different shades of one color, but also note how well the colors in each colomn goes together.

Now for the bottom two rows. You can see that the rows consist of pairs of colors, one deep, saturated and one lighter shade. The thing is that all the rich colors goes well together and all the light colors goes well together, if you need multiple colors in a chart. (On a sidenote: The observant reader might have notice the odd couple out, the two colors on the bottom right. I initially made a deep/light color pair there as well, but later figured I needed the strong red. And that orange there is one of my favorite colors, which I also missed a bit). But here is the smart part: As a default, Excel starts choosing colors in charts from the bottom row. Hence, I get some useful colors by default, and saves work! Let me illustrate this with an example. First off, there is my palette (yes, I've removed the grey background and formated the axis, but the series colors are by default):

This is actually a set of good colors, good contrast without overpowering each other. Also the deep colors makes a good contrast to the background, and both lines and text is easy to see. Now, the same graph, with the same formate on the axis, but with the colors choosen by Excel with the default palette:
Quite a difference, no? The deep blue color on "East" is fine by itself, but the colors doesn't go well with each other and makes the graph look tacky. The "West" series is very muted compared to the others and the text is hard to read. The "East" and "South" series stand out more then the two other series.

Anyway, this is a continious experiment for me, and the palette on the top may not be the one I'm ending up with. But I sure gonna make my own palette, because it is so much better then the default one. So, here are my pro's and con's of the current palette:

Good selection of shades of each color. Great for tables, lines, etc.
Almost all the colors in the palette goes well together (as long as I choose the same level of saturation)
Better default colors in charts, at least to some extend.

I really would like some more yellow shades.
The reds aren't shades of reds. They are pink, and makes my chart look like a three year old girls coloring book.
I would love to be able to replace the default grey background in charts with white, but I'm afraid changing a grey to white would affect something else that needs to be grey.

It's worth noting that from Excel 2007 this is not as big issue, since Microsoft changes the whole color tool in that version.

How to change the default palette in Excel.
From the Tools meny, click Options and select the color tab. Select a color, click modify, and change it to whatever you like (bonus tip: On the bottom, you can import the palette of any open Excel-fil). Our palette will be saved for that Excel file and all the sheets in it. Any of the old colors you've used in that file, will be replace with the new you've defined. But once you open a new Excel file, it will still have the standard palette.

If you want to save a custom palette, and have it as default in new Excel files, you have to make it the default woorkbook. Save it as an Excel template file, with the name "bookxlt" (or "bok.xlt" in Norwegian) in the xlstart folder. The folder is usually located at C:\Documents and Settings\USER\Application Data\Microsoft\Excel\XLStart, where USER is you login.

Book review: Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte

This book comes with recommendations from such luminaries as Garr Reynolds and Jerry Weissman, and I've considered buying it for quite a while now. In teh very likely case that the name Nancy Duarte doesn't ring a bell, Duarte design - headed by the very same Nancy Duarte - is the design company that can be credited for Al Gore's recent success and even (arguably) him now being a Nobel laureate. Gore has been talking about global warming and environmental issues for years and years, but it wasn't before he hired Duarte Design to make "An Inconvenient truth" as well as some actual presentation technique coaches that he went from a mumbling black hole of charisma to one of the highest paid and most sought after on the international lecture circuit.

It should be mentioned that this book was published AFTER Presentation Zen, so be warned: The first six chapters mostly deal with regurgitating Reynolds' book, as well as numerous references to Tufte and Weissman. At several points during these chapters I seriously found myself thinking that if there really was a market for a cliff notes version of already condensed books on presentation technique, I'd like a piece of that action. The references are many, the puns and clever catchphrases are abundant, and the amount of new information is scarce. Moreover, the accompanying slide examples look pedestrian and - dare I say it - cheap considering the credentials of the author.

However, the book really picks up after the sixth chapter. The sections on how to select color schemes (consciously rather than by happy accident), typesetting and animation alone make the book well worth buying. Really cool, and I'm gonna get right to applying those lessons. There's also a chapter on making templates which is really informative. Still, seeing as how I've just made the plunge from six years of lab-specific templates (one of which was of my own design) to wide open slides, I'm not yet ready to creep back into the template cage again. The amount of info you can fit on each slide really dwindles when templates are applied. While I admit that this can sometimes (or even often) be a good thing, I often find that building schematics or figures that span the entire slide really works within hard science - often the alternative is repeating the same image with slightly different areas highlighted over lots of slides.

If you're looking for efficient ways to implement animation and color schemes, then this book is definitely worth buying. If you're after a book on designing and delivering good presentations, look elsewhere.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The academic year 2009 in review

Being that the birth of my son completely overshadowed anything else in 2009, I'll roll with a summary of how things went academically. Starting with the mother of all academic yardsticks:
  • Publications: Very happy with the 2009 results in this category - only one publication short of my all-time high. Still, a personal best is there either to reminisce about or to beat, and since I've only just began my academic career, I'll do my very best to beat this number in 2010. We even managed to sneak one manuscript past the nefarious third reviewer in a fairly flashy journal - although that technically happened this year. 2009 is also the year where I surpassed my MSc advisor with respect to number of published articles, and matched her h-index.
  • Public speaking: Especially during the Fall semester, I really did my part of public speaking at conferences and such, which I really enjoy. If only it wasn't for the effing going-to-conference part of it, this would be a good full-time profession for me. I enjoy the making of presentations, the talking bit and the discussions, but I abhor the travel, I detest the sitting through of days worth of potentially interesting talks ruined by poor presentation technique, and I loathe the small-talk during lunches like: "So you're in Norway, huh? That's pretty cold, isn't it? And the roads are bad?"
  • Presentation technique: Alternatively put; before and after Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds (buy the damn book already). This book really changed my outlook on how to prepare presentations, and I've seen how it can be applied to others as well - this stuff really works. Still; the limitation is how it can be implemented into teaching, seeing as how students expect to have slides available as handouts, which is sort of what Presentation Zen strives to avoid: the presentation as document syndrome. The solution might be to make additional handouts with the material from the slide written out, but that is a project which is going to take time (more time than what I've got available this semester), plus this already exists - it's called the freakin' textbook.
  • Funding: Not such a banner year - gov't funding has gone WAY down, especially for fundamental science. Within the fundamental science programs, only about 7-8% of the applications get funded, which is laughable compared to other countries without petroleum reserves and our strong economy. In an effort not to come off as too bitter, I'll cut it short..

Here's to 2010 bringing bigger and better things.

Return of the Broski

Oh lawdi-lawd - there's a sequel to My New Haircut - the best thing on the internetz:

There's even a blooper reel + outtakes:

The scene with the two broskis checking out and comparing abs in the gym mirror is ex-'effing-actly like a couple of teh doucheclowns at pretty much every gym I've ever been at.

Don't hate da playa' - hate da game.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Deja vu all over again

Well now; it wouldn't be January if I wasn't struggling with the powers that be at the administration trying to wrangle up decent lecture facilities for the Spring semester. See e.g. my post from last year. Every freakin' year since I started here, I've gone through the same process:

  1. Submit a list of requirements for teaching facilities the preceding semester, including expected number of students and if there are any timeframes that absolutely and legitimately don't work.
  2. Check timetables for the course and realize that I've been given ungodly hours in a room with room for like 6 students, no projector, no blackboard and probably no electricity.
  3. Contact the central admin in charge and point out that I've been given insufficient facilities, both with respect to seating capacity and amenities - like blackboard, projector and - I don't know; walls?
  4. Get a reply saying that they have not registered any such requirements; they've still operating with the 1995 (or so) numbers, and the problem must obviously be on my end. Still, the dude in charge graciously agrees to look into the situation, however I must be warned that the time tables have been all but set in stone at this point.
  5. After a few rounds back and forth and a lot of diplomacy on my part, I end up with adequate teaching facilities.
  6. Repeat ad infinitum

This year - or rather before Christmas -I started the process early, hoping to get a smoother ride duringthe whole administrative debacle. As an added complication, I have just started my paternity leave, which leaves some days of the week inaccessible to teaching in order for my wife and I both to get the work-week puzzle to work out.

As I pleaded with the commaf*cking bastard in charge of room allocation, I argued that I was on partial paternity leave throughout the semester.

End result after going through a few cycles of non-usable facilities: I now teach Thursdays from 5-7 PM and Fridays from 3-4 PM.

That's gonna put lots of asses in the seats. Prime time, babee.