Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Edward Tufte

Edward Tufte is a professor at Yale who is famous for his books on information design and data visualization. He is also famous for zealous opposition to Microsoft PowerPoint [1, 2].

A couple years ago I went to one of his one-day courses and spoke with him for a few minutes during a break. He is basically on permanent tour doing a few of these courses a month wherever the weather is nicest, filling auditoriums with graphic design people and corporate/government drones who got their employers to pick up the $380 tab. (I may be one of the few people to pay out of pocket to take the course, but it came with a set of books and I like meeting my favorite writers.)

His theory of information design has two points, which I'm quoting from someone else's notes:

1. Just about everything interesting is a multivariate problem that requires the expression of three or more dimensions of information, even something as simple as giving travel directions to someone to follow over time has four dimensions. We are plagued with highly dimensional data and low resolution display surfaces, a problem which has existed since the first maps were scratched on rocks.
2. We measure progress by improvements in resolution, i.e., an increasing rate of information transfer, the density of the data on the page.
Also, because of his opposition to powerpoint, he prefers to do meetings Bezos style:
"[T]he most effective way of presenting information in a technical setting, such as an academic seminar or a meeting of industry experts, is by distributing a brief written report that can be read by all participants in the first 5 to 10 minutes of the meeting. Tufte believes that this is the most efficient method of transferring knowledge from the presenter to the audience and then the rest of the meeting is devoted to discussion and debate." [w]
Tufte's career revenue from books and speaking must be over $100 million, but he does not have any investments to speak of! He seems to think that investing is boring and vaguely immoral, and also too random. He seemed surprised but happy to hear that I consider his work relevant to investing.

I had assumed that he would be bullish on Apple since he thinks the iPad is the ultimate information display device. He was using Apple user interfaces as examples of good design before Apple products were popular. He said that he indeed told his CFO to buy shares after the crash, but she never did because he didn't have a brokerage account!

Since he can always make another few hundred thousand in an afternoon lecture, he spends money freely on his real passion which is modernist sculpture. Money does not seem to interest him.

Living modestly and not competitively is fine as far as that goes. (Although there's nothing modest about a personal sculpture garden within commuting distance of Manhattan.) But I shouldn't have to mention that investing is an essential economic function: allocating capital to projects that create productive capacity. I was surprised that his thoughts about economics were not very well developed, especially since his first book was about political meddling in economies before elections (i.e. how politicians buy reelection).

It's ironic that he likes to denigrate corporate communications to shareholders and doesn't care about investing, because he has a great entrepreneurial story. He self-published (in the shoestring sense) the first information design book, and continues to do his publishing in-house. His thread about the process of publishing the latest book is fascinating, especially since he puts so much effort into the quality of the books.
"The paper company promptly rejected our complaint about the specks; they said the paper was made 30% post-consumer waste and that's what you get when PCW goes into the mix. The paper company also argued, in effect, that the specks were not bugs but features--because the specks indicated that the publisher was virtuously using paper that contained recycled material. The paper mill also said that some corporations in their annual reports used paper with a lot of post-consumer waste to demonstrate their environmental credentials. The analogy of our bookwork to corporate annual reports was unappealing to me."
There's that anti-capitalist bent again. Still, the information design books are well worth reading (5/5) and are really works of art. Set of all four in paperback for $100.

1 comment:

Adam said...

I've been a fan of Tufte, too. Glad to meet another.

From time to time I think about what kinds of information and what ways of organizing it would be a Tufte-friendly and productive to a value investor. Still haven't come up with something interesting.