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That’s Funny…

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When I need to take a few minutes away from work, I’ll jump online for a couple of games of blitz chess (five minutes to make all moves) or play backgammon against my computer. I’ve also started doing logic problems, the kind of puzzle with grids and clues such as “The orange item took 10 minutes less to print than the yellow item.” I’m not great at them, but they do provide some distraction and, as a nerd, I’m happy when I figure one out.

I’m working through the Puzzle Baron series (currently on Book 3) and have noted some of the conventions the editor follows. One of those conventions is that the puzzle’s parameters, such as the color of an object, country, or date can’t provide a contextual clue to the correct answer. As an example, you wouldn’t have a guy named Richmond who turned out to be from Virginia because Richmond is the capitol of Virginia.

When the editor changes a clue to avoid contextual clashes, it can lead to some interesting discontinuities that provide a hint to the correct answer for a clue pair. In this instance, puzzle #7 in Puzzle Baron’s Logic Puzzles: Volume 3 contains just such an edit. The puzzle asks the solver to correctly assign the birthday, name, country of origin, and profession for a set of five passport applicants. The countries are Canada, France, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden, while the birthdays fall on April 13, May 18, June 14, July 16, and August 15. It’s conventional for the days and months to occur in sequence so you can give clues such as “The applicant from Norway was born one month earlier than the applicant from Sweden.” Days are often sequentially numbered as well, but in this case the months were used as levers and the days were not, so the day numbers could be changed if desired.

The oddity that made me say “That’s funny…” is the May 18 date. The other four day numbers are in sequence from 13 to 16, which makes the May 18 date stand out. I have a number of Norwegian friends, so I happen to know that May 17 is Norwegian National Day. Based on that knowledge, I assumed that the applicant from Norway would have the May 18 birthday because, if it had fallen on May 17, there would be external context to guide the solver to the correct answer. Sure enough, that’s how the puzzle worked out.

If the editor changed the date rather than the name of the country to leave an Easter egg for solvers, it’s an excellent gesture that in no way detracted from the fun I had solving the puzzle. If the change was unintentional, it’s a reminder of how seemingly irrelevant changes can make a big difference. It could have been a total accident, of course, but it’s still a cool story.

Do You Just Talk About It or Can You Do It?

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I just finished reading Gravity’s Kiss, a new MIT Press book by Harry Collins. Professor Collins is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Cardiff. In his book, he details the process by which researchers detected and documented the presence of gravitational waves. Collins himself is a sociologist, but he has been part of the gravitational wave community for more than 42 years. He’s picked up the language and understands the principles involved in gravitational wave science quite well, but doesn’t have the knowledge and training required to advance the science himself.

Collins is the head of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science, so he can offer keen insights into his role in the scientific community. Specifically, he distinguishes between interactional expertise and contributory expertise. Interactional expertise, as the name implies, allows individuals to converse with experts in a field using specialized vocabulary and accurate knowledge at a reasonably advanced level. Contributory expertise, by contrast, entails sufficient training and experience to further the study of a field through analysis and experiment. It’s the difference between being able to talk about something intelligently and knowing what to do with that knowledge.

I’m in the iMBA program offered by the University of Illinois, which is an online master of business administration program designed for individuals who want to advance to the senior management and executive levels of industry. In that sense, the iMBA program is similar to an EMBA (Executive MBA) program than a traditional program, which I refer to as a “practitioner” MBA. For me, the difference is that students learn a variety of skills in areas such as finance, economics, organizational structure, and marketing. The goal is to provide us with the knowledge to make strategic decisions about a company’s direction and to understand enough of the basics in our focus areas to interact with subordinates in everyday charge of those functions. In other words, we gain a fair bit of practitioner expertise and a lot of interactional expertise.

As the owner of a small business, this level of interactional expertise translates to having more intelligent conversations with my accountant and investment advisers. On the practical level, my studies will help me make better decisions about the projects I take on. As a speaker and author, however, it means I will be relatively fluent in the language of business and have a credential to back it up. Now when I make contacts with individuals around the business world I will have the knowledge from my MBA, interactions with colleagues from industry, and experience as a business owner to draw on. Properly applied, those resources will serve me very well indeed in the coming years.

To Be a Beginner Again

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When I think of what it means to “be a beginner” at something, I think of learning a new language or trying a new sport. I didn’t expect to rediscover the joys and struggles of being a beginner as a writer.

I had just finished Microsoft Excel 2016 Step by Step for Microsoft Press, my sixth Excel Step by Step book, when the publisher approached me to take on Microsoft OneNote Step by Step. I looked at my schedule, swallowed hard, and agreed to do it. I’d worked a bit with OneNote as part of my Office Online Essential Training course for, so, while I wasn’t an expert, I wasn’t coming in completely cold. Besides, I’m a writer and course developer—my job is to tease out a program’s intricacies and make them clear to the reader or viewer. How hard could it be?

I’ll pause until you stop laughing.

You can write a book about anything if you do enough research, develop a few ideas of your own, and quote liberally from other sources. I just read a business book, Everything Connects, that did exactly that. The main author probably wrote a great proposal based on his experiences as a serial entrepreneur and meditation practitioner, took his advance, and wrote down everything he could about those subjects. My guess is that he produced about 150 pages for a planned 250-page book, so the publisher brought in (or had already hired) a professional writer as co-author.

I also turned to the supporting literature on OneNote for guidance, but there’s not a lot out there compared to the vast, rich resources on Excel. That said, I wrote what I could and discovered a lot as I went along, but I didn’t have an experienced user’s feel for the program. I’m fortunate Microsoft convinced Ed Price, formerly a member of the OneNote product team, to be the book’s technical editor. Ed knows the software in depth, both as a user and someone familiar with the broader customer base’s needs and desires. He added a lot of material I’d considered not important enough to include, changed the emphasis of certain sections of the book to improve its usefulness, and became, in all but name, a full co-author.

I’m grateful for the substantial help Ed provided and hope to make him a full co-author, with cover credit, when it comes time to refresh the book. As a writer it was good, though incredibly frustrating, to write about a program I hadn’t worked with extensively. I had 20 years of skill and discipline to power through a first draft we could use as a basis for critique, but I had several flashbacks to when I was just starting out and lacked the tools I have now.

I survived (with the help of Ed and others), the book will provide good value to OneNote users, and I was reminded how difficult a thing it is to produce a manuscript from whole cloth. I’m glad I agreed to help out, but I’m sure glad we’re done.

Book Review: Cataloging the World

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Title: Cataloging the World

Author: Alex Wright

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-199-93141-5

Length: 360

Price: $27.95

Rating: 93%


I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

I don’t normally read biographies. Books about the dead are often unnecessarily complimentary or disparaging, while stories about the living (especially individuals under 40) suffer from the same flaw and have to fill pages with irrelevant details and repetition. What’s worse, I find personalities to be the least interesting part of technological development.

I don’t care for a dry recounting of events, either, so it’s refreshing to find a biography that melds personalities, conflict, and interesting technology into a compelling story. Alex Wright’s book Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, does just that.

Library Science and Beyond

I’d never heard of Paul Otlet, but friends who studied library science at the undergraduate and graduate level were familiar with his work. Born in 1868 in the French-influenced part of Belgium, Otlet was educated outside of the traditional school system. His father was a successful businessman, so Otlet and his brother traveled with him and attended lectures and received private tutoring as their father’s travels allowed.

Intellectually advanced but socially unskilled, Otlet suffered when he attended a traditional school starting at age 14. Perhaps taking pity on him, a priest who taught at the school asked Otlet to help in the library, filling student book requests two days a week and reading the rest of the time. The assignment fit the young student’s temperament perfectly and perhaps pushed him onto the path of attempting to coalesce the world’s knowledge into a single, searchable system.

The Mundaneum

Otlet is best known for his struggle to implement his vision for a universal knowledge classification and dissemination system, which after early work in the area was embodied by The Mundaneum. The Mundaneum, a collection of facts gathered from printed literature by volunteers around the world, was intended as a repository that individuals could query to get information they needed for research or on subjects they wished to learn more about. Using individual contributors in what would now be called crowdsourcing occurred in other major projects, such as the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Mundaneum and related efforts to classify information reflected Otlet’s utopian internationalist ideals, which led him to argue that making the world’s information readily available to anyone would lead to world peace. Such idealism, when combined with the struggle to secure public and private support for such a large endeavor, made it a natural base for Wright’s narrative.

The last two chapters of Cataloging the World describe how Otlet’s work at organizing, linking, and sharing information presaged hypertext and the World Wide Web. Many concepts I attributed to Vennevar Bush’s Memex information linking and retrieval system were, in fact, created by or known to Otlet. Wright also points out that Bush was “notoriously stingy” in giving credit to his sources of inspiration.


Cataloging the World brings the work of Paul Otlet from the specialized literature of library scientists to the general public. I enjoyed Wright’s work immensely and am glad he struck a skillful balance among personality, ideas, and events. I recommend Cataloging the World to the general reader, but it would be especially useful to anyone involved in information design, documentation, and presentation.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Randall Munroe’s Presentation

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The last of the three STDP2 presentations I’ll review was by Randall Munroe, creator of the online comic xkcd. I’ve read xkcd for years and am constantly amazed at the quality of his work.

Munroe started out by noting that it’s ridiculously easy to get in your own way by trying to automate a process that can be done perfectly well by hand. As an example, consider a chart showing character interactions in the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movies.


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Gandalf’s a plot hack.

                            – Randall Munroe

Munroe said that he tried for ten years, off and on, to develop a tool that could translate a script into a character interaction timeline. Finally, frustrated, he drew the graph for the original Star Wars trilogy by hand in an hour. I imagine the timeline for 12 Angry Men took slightly less time to complete.

Displaying data is easy, Munroe argued, but determining which data to show is tough. That said, some presentation modes are better than others. Once he finds an angle he likes, he looks for other ways he can leverage that approach. Recently, he published a graphic on California droughts that uses the physical shape of the state as its axes. I’d love to see this design metaphor used in other graphics.


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He makes his infographics more palatable by adding humor, such as asides about a specific data point or a joke to indicate that, while he takes the analysis seriously, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. That approach lets him reveal that the Environmental Protection Agency assigns a human life an economic value of $8.2 million when performing cost-benefit analysis without inciting his readers.

Munroe came across as a soft-spoken, gentle person who is still slightly uncomfortable speaking in public. That said, his resolve strengthened when he discussed his wife’s cancer diagnosis and how he communicated the realities of treatment and survival rates. The image that resulted, “Lanes”, is one of the most powerful infographics I’ve encountered.


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He didn’t want to leave us on such a somber note, so he concluded by showing us a graphic called “Lakes and Oceans” that he thought was interesting but nothing special. It shows the relative depths of  various bodies of water and the ocean floor. He was surprised to discover it was one of the most popular things he published that year.


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I enjoyed my time in Seattle. The presentations by Jonathan Corum, Maria Popova, and Randall Munroe gave me a burst of energy that have let me approach my own work from a fresh perspective.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Maria Popova’s Presentation

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Maria Popova has produced Brain Pickings since October 23, 2006. What started out as an occasional email newsletter sent to coworkers at one of the four jobs she was working to pay for college has turned into a popular and well-regarded net resource.

Her presentation was substantially different from Jonathan Corum’s. Corum concentrated on his visual design process, but Popova focused on what she calls combinatorial thinking. Her goal is to combine lots of information with a little wisdom to produce an interesting and useful intellectual product that helps readers live reflectively.

Popova’s talk centered on the seven lessons that she learned from the first seven years of producing Brain Pickings. You can find the full post with commentary on her site, but I’ll summarize the points here as she did in her talk:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.
  2. Do nothing out of guilt, or for prestige, status, money or approval alone.
  3. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life.
  5. Maya Angelou famously said, “When people tell you who they are, believe them”. But even more importantly, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. As Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. Debbie Millman captures our modern predicament beautifully: “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”

Popova went into points six and the seven in a bit more detail, offering quotes from Mary Oliver, Tchaikovsky, Chuck Close, and Isabel Allende to support her points. She also shared a link to an interesting visualization summarizing the sleep habits of successful writers. Though the data was necessarily a bit piecemeal and anecdotal, it appears that late risers, meaning those who typically awake around 10 AM or 11 AM, tend to produce more work but win fewer awards. For someone like me, who is firmly in the late riser camp, the good news is that there is no secret hour of awakening that means you will win a Pulitzer Prize.

She also noted that, in many ways, our work ethic fights us. American culture measures us by what we achieve and, while just showing up is important to success in life, she feels we can let ourselves fall into a routine of meaningless productivity without truly living.

Popova’s presentation was substantially different from Corum’s and, at first, I was a little put off by the lack of compelling visuals like those presented by a member of the New York Times media team. Once I realized that her focus was more on internal processes as opposed to audience-focused visualizations, I was able to appreciate her points and ended up getting quite a lot out of her presentation. She also landed me as a new supporter of Brain Pickings, earning her the price of a cup of tea each month.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Jonathan Corum’s Presentation

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We all have different ways of refreshing our perspectives and energies. I’m not a public person and don’t care much for gurus, but I saw the See, Think, Design, Produce seminar, organized by Edward Tufte and presented at the Westin Seattle on August 7, as a terrific opportunity to gain insights into leading professionals’ design thinking patterns.

The day’s program featured four speakers: Jonathan Corum from the New York Times; Maria Popova, curator of Brain Pickings; Randall Munroe, author of the xkcd online comic; and Edward Tufte, the design and communication guru. I got a lot out of the day — three of the four sessions were well worth my time and the other, unfortunately, reinforced criticism I’d heard from attendees of other events.

Jonathan Corum designs information visualizations for the New York Times. His work runs the gamut from seemingly simple graphics to full-on productions incorporating video and interactive web programming. He was first attracted to design work when he was quite young, when he used his pattern matching skills to see and recognize a person in the distance after a glance even though he couldn’t see that individual’s face. This event, as simple as it seems, eventually led him to see the possibilities of communicating by designing effective visualizations.

As an example, he showed illustrations from an Audubon Society book on bumblebees. The book’s graphics showed the pattern, variation, time, and location of numerous bumblebee species. The graphics were compact, easy to understand, and contained a lot of information. Corum moved onto thinking about visualizations, which in his case means sketching possible designs to communicate a concept, underlying data, or both. He emphasized that sketches are not commitments and showed a New York Times visualization that had gone through 265 iterations. “You try different things,” he said, “so that you can find something your brain recognizes, remember that aha moment, and communicate your understanding.”

Regarding design, he begged us to do more than collect and visualize trivia — whatever we display should add up to something and show meaningful patterns. As a data journalist (my term, not his), he emphasized that visualization does not equal explanation. We have to add an extra layer of explanation to be sure that our intended message gets across. When it comes time to produce a visualization, you have to learn to embrace the limitations of your medium and, in some cases, design the content to meet those restrictions.

Because video recordings of Olympic events are owned by the International Olympic Committee, for example, the New York Times had to display images of half-pipe snowboarders and downhill slalom skiers using a series of overlaid still photographs. Embracing that limitation resulted in a compelling composite image complete with callouts indicating the physical techniques the competitors used to execute a maneuver and set up for the next one.

Corum’s role as a journalist requires him to think of a broader audience, rather than just designing for an audience of one. It all comes down, he stated, to having respect for the reader or viewer, and to remember what it’s like to encounter a topic for the first time when you design a visualization.