Saturday, March 25, 2017

A One-Day Course by Edward Tufte at CSAIL

I was fortunate to be supported by my adviser at MIT, Charles E. Leiserson, to attend a one-day course by Edward Tufte on March 17th, 2017. Here is some info about the course on Tufte's website. MIT CSAIL organized the event and made it possible for many students and postdocs to attend it. It took place on a big conference room in Mariot Cambridge, which is quite close to Stata Center. Because of the bad weather of a few days earlier, two classes were combined and there was a big audience. As a result, there were two screens in the big room, and Edward seemed to have difficulty switching/focusing on one. I have learned from another workshop (see here) that two screens for a talk is simply a bad idea, which is now rare compared to 10 years ago.

At the beginning, we were given Tufte books which are centered on "how to present data and information". In general, the course was about selected topics from these books. I believe if someone has the books, there is little reason to attend the expensive class. We were asked to show up one hour before the course and were given instruction to read particular parts of the book 'carefully'. I thought it is necessary for understanding the material and following the course. Unfortunately, later we learned that it is just to illustrate Tufte's approach to teaching, where he presents students of his classes with some learning material before beginning a class. In the case of this course, that data was never referred to.

The course began with darkening the room followed by a piece of piano with an animated graphical score as a way to 'present the underlying data', something like this. The course continues with a review of web-page design and high-resolution screens, etc. During the course, the room lighting were adjusted multiple times. Sometimes we were in complete darkness, which made it hard to take notes on paper (and awkward to do so on laptop as it seemed too bright). We were barred from taking videos. 

One of the things that I remember (and do not necessarily agree) from the course is that Tufte objects the idea of presenting little material in order to effectively teach it. He believes a lot of data can be presented, e.g., in the same figure and the reader can perfectly digest them. I agree with this in many cases but not always. Sometimes the extra details just becomes confusing. Quite related to this, we learn that Tufte prefers high-density data display that conveys a lot of information. As a result, he does not like PowerPoint or slides since they tend to break data into small portions.   

One interesting point that Tufte makes is that, data explanation (e.g., what a color or bar means) should be close to the data diagrams (those colors or bars). You should not add an explanation on a corner of a figure. Just added in exact place that is required.

I also learned about sparklines, which are introduced by Tufte in 1980s. Here is the wiki page about them. I find them useful in presenting high-density data, and I believe they are required but not-present in many Computer Science research papers.

One nice thing that I remember from the course was a 19-th century diagram about loses of French Army in Napoleon's Russian invasion. Here is a wiki page about it. It is a good example on how data can be a 'beautiful evidence' (title of Tufte's book which include this topic). 

I find this review about Tufte's course quite interesting. I agree that Tufte rambles a lot, talks too much about his books and himself, e.g., when he talks about his experience with NASA, power-points, or his personal dismissal of big data. He looked like an arrogant person to me, specially when I saw how he made a long dialogue with a colleague while there was a big line of people waiting for him to sign the books (I wanted to have his signature on the books; but I changed my mind after that).

According to my experience, which is shared with a few others who wrote reviews about the course, Tufte's books are better than his class, and arguably better than his manner.