Category Archives: Science

Information Dashboard Design – Stephen Few

“Eloquence through simplicity”

One of the largest challenges facing high-level management or leaders is information. A large organization is complicated at the best of times, and the information passed on by lower-level management is distorted by their own biases and interests. Even when you get unbiased information, it may not be clear what matters or what you should pay attention to.

Enter the dashboard. There are many definitions, but Stephen Few uses a relatively simple one: a dashboard is a “visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives, consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.”

In other words, the reader should be able to look at the dashboard and take in what they need to know in a single glance. They are an overview of performance.

So far so good, and yet many dashboards fail to achieve this purpose. They use misleading diagrams, or colours that provide no information but make it hard to take information in quickly, or have a poor data-to-ink ratio. Some will clutter the display with unnecessary visual effects, or arrange information poorly, or fail to consider exactly what the audience needs to know.

The solution is simplicity. Every pixel in a dashboard should have a purpose, or you should remove it. Dashboards should 1) maximize the data-to-ink ratio, and 2) emphasize the data. IT workers should push back when customers demand poor dashboards, and give them not what they want, but what they need. No dashboard can do everything, and pretending they can will only create confusion.

The book spends most of its time going through examples, which are particularly informative. Few highlights some dashboards that fail, and some that succeed, in a wide variety of contexts. This isn’t a casual read, but if you use dashboards in your own life (and they are surprisingly general in purpose – you could use one for your physical exercise, for example!), it is an excellent one, full of rich advice and good ideas.

The Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins

“The high-energy fuels, sugars or whatever they are, are coaxed into releasing their energy in stages, down through a cascade of chemical reactions, each one feeding into the next, like a stream tumbling down a series of small waterfalls, turning one small water wheel after another. Whatever the details, all the water wheels and cogs and drive shafts of life are ultimately powered by the sun.”

There are some amazing things in nature, things we typically take for granted: rainbows, the seasons, earthquakes, matter itself. Dawkins doesn’t take them for granted, and in his new book, he aims to explain them in as simple a manner as possible, taking joy in the wonder of nature.

That joy in nature comes through clearly, as it often does in Dawkins’ writings. Though The Magic of Reality isn’t labeled as such, it’s mostly a science primer: if you have any science background, you’ll know much of what he says already. That said, it spans enough of areas of science almost any reader will still learn some things, and it could make a great gift for a precocious child interested in science.

From why we have rainbows and earthquakes to how we evolved and why there are so many different kinds of animals, Dawkins takes on a whole range of questions. His older works glory in nature, and invite the reader to share in his passion for it: his love of science illuminates his writings. His more recent work, however, has tended towards the bitter – I would speculate that his love for the natural world calcified into a hatred for religion. The Magic of Reality is an attempt to return to his earlier method, with some success. His joy in science is back, but he still can’t resist the occasional jab at religion: the final section, considering why bad things happen, is better left to philosophers and he doesn’t have much to say. Still, it’s much better.

Not a must read, and I’d probably rather read his early books first, but still well worth it, and The Magic of Reality could also make a good Christmas gift.

Superforecasting – Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

“The consumers of forecasting–governments, business, and the public–don’t demand evidence of accuracy. So there is no measurement. Which means no revision. And without revision, there can be no improvement.”

For the last few years, I’ve been a participant in a study. Each week, I log in to an online platform, and try to predict the future. I make predictions about geopolitical events – from the value of the American dollar to the likelihood of drone strikes in Iran or deaths in the South China Sea – and estimate how confident I am about my prediction. I do okay. I’m proud to say, though, that the team I’m a member of outperforms professional intelligence analysts with the U.S. military, who have access to classified information.

Predicting the future is a useful skill. It’s also one we’re awful at: previous work by Tetlock found that experts were, on average, slightly worse than chance at predicting the future. Monkeys with dartboards would be better. For the last few years, the American government has been funding research into using the wisdom of crowds to predict the future. The team I’m a member of is led and organized by Tetlock and his fellow researchers, and it has been very successful – so successful that after two years, halfway through the study, the other teams were all shut down.

Superforecasting is a book about that team, and about the top members of it (I’m nowhere close, if you’re interested). It’s interesting and well written – for me the addition of Dan Gardner, who has written some great other books, has made it much more readable than Tetlock’s previous writing. In the end, it ascribes much of the success of superforecasters to a method that can be learned: a way of analyzing problems and carefully testing our beliefs and biases to try to make sure we are as accurate as possible.

A useful skill, and an interesting book. We may not all become superforecasters, but we can all learn some skills to improve our ability to analyze events and predict outcomes.

Disclosure: I read Superforecasting as an advance reader copy. You can read more reviews, and pre-order a copy on Amazon for when it comes out on September 29th, here: Superforecasting.

The Geek Manifesto – Mark Henderson

“Precisely what politicians think is less important than how they think”

David Tredinnick, MP in the UK House of Commons, is concerned that the cycles of the moon affects surgeries, pregnancy, and hangovers (though he doesn’t mention werewolves). He has attempted to expense around 750 pounds on astrology software, and is a fan of homeopathy as a treatment for various conditions (including malaria), also known as medicine for which there is no evidence. Unfortunately, he also has a seat on the House of Commons Committee that oversees the Ministry of Health. Members on both sides of the aisle have expressed similar views, at best seeking to use what David Halpern calls ‘spray-on evidence’ to justify it, evidence that you pick after you’ve decided what you think.

The problem isn’t limited to the UK, of course. The Geek Manifesto argues that there is an opportunity to improve the situation: to force politicians to actually care about evidence and science, instead of ignoring it. Henderson doesn’t care what politicians think, or what side of the aisle they’re on: he cares that they use evidence to support their opinions, and base their judgments on facts and studies, not guesses and assumptions. The answer is to mobilize the geeks of the world, which he would define as those who care about evidence, and use them as a voting block to force evidence-based policy. Hence, Geek Manifesto.

Most of us would agree, I suspect. Unfortunately, he underplays how difficult it can be to rely on data even when it disagrees with our assumptions. He even falls into the trap on occasion, suggesting that teachers shouldn’t be accepted based on school performance, when the data does suggest teacher intelligence and ability does matter in student outcomes. Finding and using information that disagrees with us is something we all struggle with, potentially most of all intelligent people, because they are so good at convincing themselves why a study might be biased or wrong. I don’t know how to fix that, but I know it’s a challenge.

The Perfect Swarm – Len Fisher

“Simple rules, patterns and formulae can often help us steer our way through, but in the end it is the complexity that rules. OK?”

The world is pretty complicated these days. How, you might wonder, should you best navigate in a world that seems overwhelming? Perfect Swarm argues that we can use simple rules to defeat and exploit complexity. Locusts, for example, have tremendously large swarms – the largest can be 513,000 km2 and contain 12.5 million insects – but their wings are delicate, and if they collide in midair they might die. Fortunately, no ESP is needed to guide the swarm: instead, they individually follow simple rules of avoidance, alignment, and attraction to create a seemingly chaotic mass out of order. Fish, bees, birds, and many other animals do the same.

What does this mean for humans? One fascinating implication for leadership is that if most people are just swarming, even if only a very few members of the group have a clear direction, the entire group will move that way. Charisma, dignity, etc., might all help, but in the end as long as you have a goal and other members of the group don’t, everyone will follow you there. This has even been rather charmingly demonstrated in a room of students asked to wander randomly but not get too far from other students: adding a couple students with a destination to the mix means all the students end up at that destination!

To achieve clarity, the book trades a lot of elegance and detail, and it can sometimes feel oversimplified. The later chapters of the book focus on heuristics (simple rules for decision-making), and perhaps it’s because it is my field, but for me the section felt so simplified as to be hard to extrapolate from. If you’re looking for a fairly simple introduction to chaos theory and how different disciplines have attempted to resolve the problem, though, as well as some personally applicable insights on how to move through a crowd or decide between multiple options, Perfect Swarm can certainly provide.

What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – Randall Munroe

“High in the North in a land called Svithjod there is a mountain. It is a hundred miles long and a hundred miles high and once every thousand years a little bird comes to this mountain to sharpen its beak. When the mountain has thus been worn away a single day of eternity will have passed.” – Hendrik Willem van Loon

I read a lot, but it’s rare I read a book I can recommend unconditionally. This is one of them, with the extra bonus you can read a lot of it in advance online to see if you agree. It’s insightful, it’s hilarious, and best of all it can give you a glimpse into how scientists think, working through the world from first principles.

The book is exactly what the title says: it gives carefully worked out answers to absurd questions, like what would happen if you swam in a nuclear waste pond (nothing – water is great radioactive shielding. Of course, trying to swim in such a pond would get you shot by the guards), hit a baseball going at .9c (Boom!), endured a robot apocalypse (the robots would probably slip on the mountain of skulls and most can’t open doors or pass those tricky rubber thresholds on lab doors. Even most battle drones would be stuck, “helplessly bumping against hangar doors like Roombas stuck in a closet.”) or lived in a world with love at first sight (people would want to be police officers or receptionists, since they make eye contact with the most people).

Munroe was a robotics engineer at NASA, so has good science credentials. He left to run his webcomic, xkcd (which I also highly recommend). His book, however, takes columns from a series he did online, What If, and puts them in convenient book form with some additions – you should definitely read the online column first to see if it’s your thing, and I’m not sure how much new content there is, to be fair.

The book is hilarious, as you’d expect from the author of xkcd. For me, the best part is that Munroe can’t seem to avoid thinking like a physicist. Keeping in mind I started my degree in physics, I love it: it reminds me of the great way scientists have of looking at the world. Analysis like:

“First, let’s start with wild ballpark approximations… I can pick up a mole (animal) and throw it.[citation needed] Anything I can throw weighs one pound. One pound is one kilogram. The number 602,214,129,000,000,000,000,000 looks about twice as long as a trillion, which means it’s about a trillion trillion. I happen to remember that a trillion trillion kilograms is how much a planet weighs.”

There is basically nothing I don’t love in that paragraph. This is how reasoning about the world should work, for oh so many reasons!

In Defense of Food – Michael Pollan

“Eat food, mostly plants, not too much”

There’s a myriad of diets out there, and for all that science suggests that basically all of them contribute to short term weight loss (apparently, paying attention to what you’re eating is a sufficient condition for weight loss) and most of them don’t show any persistence anyway, people still struggle to pick the best one. One thesis is that the Western diet itself is simply bad for us: a group of ten Australian aborigines who resumed traditional lifestyles for seven weeks as part of an experiment saw improvements in blood pressure and their risk of heart disease among other indicators, and also lost 18 pounds. The answer to the Western diet, says Pollan, is to stop eating it.

Pollan argues eating well is simple: we’ve been doing it since we came out of the trees. Unfortunately, it isn’t in the interests of the food industry, journalism, or even nutrition science to keep it that way: after all, if they just said eat more vegetables, we’d fire the lot of them. His goal is to make it simple again.

To do so, he suggests a series of simple rules: don’t eat things your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food; avoid foods with ingredients that are unpronounceable, unfamiliar, or more than five in number; only shop at the edges of the supermarket; have a glass of wine with dinner; only eat a table, and never alone; and a few others.

The book is not as good as some of his others, such as Omnivore’s Dilemma or Cooked. It’s well written though, and to my knowledge probably correct. Several points are enough to make you stop and think, too: I was interested to learn that isolated populations appear to have few dental problems, whether consuming all meat, such as the Masai in Tanzania, no dairy in the Hebrides, or agriculturalists who ate largely plants (though agriculturalists showed the most tooth decay of the three). Overall, In Defense of Food is not a must-read, but if you like Pollan or are interested in food generally, worth picking up.

The Panic Virus – Seth Mnookin

“Combined with the self-reinforcing nature of online communities and a content-starved, cash-poor journalistic culture that gravitates toward neat narratives at the expense of messy truths, this disdain for actualities has led to a world with increasingly porous boundaries between facts and beliefs, a world in which individualized notions of reality, no matter how bizarre or irrational, are repeatedly validated.”

In 2009, there were more than 13,000 cases of pertussis (whooping cough) in Australia. In 2010, the pertussis outbreak in California was so bad that some countries started warning their citizens about the dangers of traveling there. It still kills around 80,000 people a year globally. Most deaths are in Africa, where vaccination efforts are incomplete: increasing number of infections, however, also occur in the developed world, where there is no excuse. The reason, Mnookin argues, is increasing parental anxiety about vaccines.

Having read hundreds of scientific papers and thousands of pages of court transcripts for the book, Mnookin argues the evidence in favour of their use is decisive. Further, when children are not vaccinated it places those who cannot be, either because they are too young or have weak immune systems, at risk. Yet in many ways he is sympathetic to parents: overwhelmed by the flood of false information in the internet, they are understandably nervous about their child’s health. Instead, he places the blame on a media that prefers ‘neat stories at the expense of messy truths’ and the ‘charlatans and hucksters’ like Andrew Wakefield who have taken advantage of the fears of parents.

Scientists and the courts have been unequivocal in their support of vaccination, and Mnookin does a good job staying sympathetic to victims while sticking to the science. As he points out, critics of vaccines have often raised legitimately troubling questions insufficiently addressed by the medical community, but that somehow those critics have also decided they have the right to choose their own answer, instead of believing the science. The book thus reads not just as a discussion of vaccines, though it is comprehensive on that subject, but also as an examination of modernity and relativism in general. For anyone interested in the debate, I think there is no better reference on the issues of autism, a much needed counterweight to Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, and other well-meaning people whose advice puts children – and adults – at risk of serious harm.

Spillover – David Quammen

“Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behaviour are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly.”

The elimination of smallpox is unquestionably one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Before it was eradicated, it killed upwards of three million people per year in the 20th century, far more than the world wars or any other cause. Sadly, it also remains one of only two diseases to be eradicated in human history (the other is rinderpest): polio has seen a recent resurgence, partly due to unwillingness to accept vaccines, and we aren’t even close on most other diseases. A dramatic failure on humanity’s part, and one with an end goal that we all agree on: it doesn’t bode well for global warming.

Quammen, however, has some more bad (but interesting!) news. Many diseases are zoonotic: they use animals as reservoir hosts, often causing no symptoms, and are only noticed when they mutate and jump to humans. AIDS, Ebola, bubonic plague, Spanish influenza (and all influenzas), West Nile fever, rabies, anthrax, Lyme disease; all zoonotic, and the list goes on. That means elimination isn’t really an option, unless we’re prepared to resort to xenocide against the species in question, and as humans eliminate natural habitats and spread more widely we make cross-species infection, called spillover, more and more likely. In most countries, AIDS education materials recommend practicing safe sex or not sharing needles: in Cameroon, the signs recommend not eating apes.

What makes the book work is that the existence of reservoir hosts makes the study of the disease like a detective novel: scientists have to search for the reservoir and solve the mystery, though most of them don’t wear deerstalkers. Disease is one of those things it’s easy to forget about when we’re not in the grip of a crisis, but preparation, as with anything, is critical to reducing the impact later on. For that reason alone, I’d say it’s worth reading Spillover: the fact that it has some fun stories and interesting characters in it is icing on the cake. Even better, mind you, is seeing Quammen speak in person about it, as I was lucky enough to do: he’s a good speaker, and summarizes both content and stories well. Either way, a serious issue for humanity, and one the wise should definitely be thinking about.

You can get a copy of Spillover here.