Festival of Bureaucratic Hyper-Rationalism

August 1, 2006

Another good post from John Maloney on the deadly (literally) impact of Powerpoint, and the title of this is his …

The Actuality

Findings on PowerPoint and Columbia were done by two blue ribbon review
committees in 2003 and 2005. They were the Columbia Accident Investigation
Board (2003) and the Return to Flight Task Group (2005). Both review boards
independently concluded that:

1) PowerPoint is an inappropriate tool for engineering reports,
presentations, documentation;
2) the technical report is superior to PP.

The Famous Cut Off

1/24/03 Transcript of a Columbia Mission Management Meeting:

“Ms. Ham repeatedly stressed in the following discussion that the foam posed
‘no safety of flight’concern and ‘no issue for this mission’ Ms. Ham cut off
a NASA engineering manager, Don L. McCormack, Jr. while he was presenting
uncertainties and unknown risks for the piece of foam that struck the
shuttle some 80 seconds into the flight.”

Background: The Truth of the Matter

Before Tufte began his PowerPoint crusade, he created an academic discipline
to study how people interpret visual information. When Tufte says
PowerPoint’s visual style encourages “generic, mushy, simplistic thought,”
people listen.

Soon after the loss of Columbia, Tufte filed a Freedom of Information Act
request for PowerPoint briefings pertaining to the flight.

Tufte was aghast. The slides were a muddle of banner headings and bullet
points. Important findings were buried in subheadings. “I couldn’t believe
it,” Tufte recalls. So he posted the slides on the Internet.

The members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board couldn’t believe it

The investigators singled out one slide that proved pivotal in the failure
of NASA executives to grasp Columbia’s jeopardy. It is classically bad
PowerPoint, a “festival of bureaucratic hyper-rationalism,” Tufte writes. It
contains six levels of hierarchy: A banner title followed by a big bullet
point, a dash, a diamond and a little bullet point to denote subpoints, and
finally, a set of parentheses.

The Irony

Finally, isn’t it ironic that Don Norman’s “In Defense of PowerPoint” is
done in a very thoughtful, personal and effective essay? Apparently, for
Don, crafting well-conceived, complete sentences and using an attractive and
persuasive narrative style is best. Hmmmn.

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