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GI Tufte
May 15, 2014 5:37 AM   Subscribe

Military infographics are completely insane -- An analysis of some of the baffling infographics that the US military have made public on the web for some reason.
posted by schmod (59 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Part of what makes military diagrams so fascinating is that they look a lot like the images civilians use to do their regular workaday jobs.

Yes. The usual crappy PowerPoints, but all about how to kill more people.
posted by pracowity at 5:47 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


As much fun as it is to scratch our heads and laugh at these, the only difference between these and the slides presented during any number of all-hands meetings that my former corporate masters used to hold is the lack of company logo on the lower left corner of each and every slide.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:47 AM on May 15 [8 favorites]


Yep, infographics for any industry will frequently be confusing to the rest of us...take the tech industry for example.
posted by HuronBob at 5:48 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


( whatever you do, don't keep scrolling down that page I posted above! It gets a bit overwhelming!)
posted by HuronBob at 5:50 AM on May 15


Yes. The usual crappy PowerPoints, but all about how to kill more people.

All PowerPoints kill people. Non-military ones just do it with boredom.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:50 AM on May 15 [22 favorites]


What can I do to disrupt the kill chain of my adversaries, while keeping my own kill chain intact?

Oops, thought this was AskMeFi.
posted by crazylegs at 5:56 AM on May 15 [29 favorites]


The general problem with most internal infographics like these is that, even if they are being assembled by an actual designer (and that's a big "if"), they are done so with an office full of Napoleonsmanagers looking over the designer's shoulder and playing art director over every little goddamned detail.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:57 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


Kill chain of fools
posted by thelonius at 6:00 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I refuse to believe that anybody overthought these graphics. I get the distinct impression that they are designed to fill slides, rather than communicate useful information (lest they give way to the half-baked concepts that they're intended to represent)
posted by schmod at 6:00 AM on May 15


"Your charts are boring. Too much text. Add some clipart."
posted by smackfu at 6:04 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


The NSA slides were pretty damn awful too. Weirdly, I was offended immediately that the logo designs seem to be using MS WordArt. All that money in the black budget and that is what you get in logo design. Invasion of privacy, panopticon surveillance state and bad taste. Sigh.
posted by jadepearl at 6:04 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


In other news, Dr. Strangelove is 50.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:07 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


More examples of the banality of evil.
posted by Pudhoho at 6:08 AM on May 15 [12 favorites]


There’s also a strong tendency for graphics to include icons of satellites and jet fighters, because they can

To be fair, I work in obscure library stuff, and I'm a little jealous I can't include jet fighters in my presentations now. I would put cool airplanes on all the things.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:10 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


My employer is a database company and we have a fighter jet on our website right now. I don't see why it would be out of place in library stuff.
posted by dhoe at 6:13 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I now work in a company that supplies to the packaging industry, and sometimes in presentations boxes represent, uhm, boxes... Advice on how to sex those presentations up are welcome.
posted by Harald74 at 6:13 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


From the bottom of the page, I am at hapy the author is trying to tell us he is still alive, but I hope he has a statement in his will with info on how to update his blog signature...
Paul Ford
(1974– ) Writer, editor, programmer
posted by Theta States at 6:14 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Yes, the military uses the same management techniques that industry uses... because those management techniques were invented to enable us to win WWII.

The military has been doing power points for a very long time, prior to the invention of the computer. It's likely they were doing something like them before the invention of paper.
posted by MikeWarot at 6:16 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


Entertaining.
I'm not sure I'd call them infographics, though. Diagrams, sure. And splendidly awful ones.

Although on reflection, given accepted definitions of infographics, I'm not sure what to me makes these diagrams and not infographics (except, perhaps, that these are *bad*).

Maybe an infographic is an infographic if it is informative; if it effectively communicates the data it is trying to communicate. If it turns data into information - and so, tucked away into its name is an assessment. It's not an infographic if it's not at least pretty good.
posted by entropone at 6:20 AM on May 15


Hmm yes, if there's one thing the American military bureaucracy is lacking, it's overhead expenses. They should totally hire a bunch of designers in black turtlenecks to spiff up the endless morass of PowerPoint decks.
posted by indubitable at 6:21 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


Hi, Theta States. I do have that statement in my will.
posted by ftrain at 6:21 AM on May 15 [31 favorites]


The military uses pretty much the same management techniques as the Romans (except they are much less infatuated with the number 10). Either way, I'm pretty sure that we didn't defeat Hitler with our cunning misuse of ontology.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:26 AM on May 15


MetaFilter: disrupt the kill chain of my adversaries
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:29 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Yes, the military uses the same management techniques that industry uses... because those management techniques were invented to enable us to win WWII.

As an aside, I've always heard this argument, but have never heard any specifics as to what these "management techniques" actually are/were.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:30 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


The military uses pretty much the same management techniques as the Romans

The whole field of Operations Research comes from planning for the invasion of Europe, I have heard. The Romans were pretty good at administration and at conquering people, but they never did anything close to that scale of complexity.
posted by thelonius at 6:34 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


From the article:

various parts of the U.S. military are trying to build an operating system for use in wartime situations. This effort has presented all sorts of challenges and funding opportunities.

I love the pairing of "challenges" and "funding opportunities."
posted by vitabellosi at 6:35 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


> baffling infographics

Not unlike the notoriously unparseable acronyms that have emerged from the military. But puzzling out and translating some of those can be rewarding. FUBAR.
posted by jfuller at 6:37 AM on May 15


As of (checks watch) 18 days ago, I'm no longer a defense contractor. So it's a bit surreal to me to see things I'm more-or-less familiar with, like DoDAF, showing up in a "whoa look at this crazy stuff" context - when you swim in those waters, where everything is very, very complex and systems are layered upon systems nested inside acronyms - it's easy to forget you're in water at all.

Offhand, one thing I think we might identify here as a distinguishing property of (US) Military presentation of complex topics: There's a resistance to actually abstracting things away. In the civilian tech world, we often like to handwave away whole vast complex systems with a single arrow and "RESTful queries go here" or "Data warehouse I/O" or similar shorthands. Military diagrams, at least in my experience, are more apt to want to retain all levels of detail as much as they possibly can.

Working theory - when it comes to justifying budgets, a lot of DoD projects are under pressure to prove their usefulness to the warfighter - that is, to the actual men and women engaged in the business of combat and supporting combat. This creastes incentives to drill down through the layers of abstraction to be able to (literally) draw the line that connects New Thing to Corporal Jones and his squad on the ground.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:38 AM on May 15 [25 favorites]


The author just retweeted this picture. "PowerPoint Ranger." Damn.
posted by Cash4Lead at 6:52 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but most of operational research is about using statistics to find optimum solutions to particular problems - it's a real thing done by real people who are looking at situations, asking questions and conducting experiments to determine optimal conditions. These slides are all about using the phrase "optimize our criticalities" to mean "set our priorities".

That's really the thing about slide decks like these. The people who make them always want to point at folks like W. Edwards Deming as proof of the value of the sides. (Not that I think Deming was without flaw or anything - he got a little messianic in his old age, but his fundamentals were pretty solid.) These slides aren't so much about what's happening in real life anywhere or how it might be improved, they're about selling the management paradigm.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:54 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


Remember, no matter how sophisticated your system, it's gotta fit on one slide that can be described with a ~3min voice-track. (voice-of-experience, I've done lots of DODAF docs).
posted by j_curiouser at 6:55 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


Not unlike the notoriously unparseable acronyms that have emerged from the military.

I was recently a tech editor for a DoD agency, and literally (I mean, I clocked it) 25 percent of my job was translating acronyms. Not a single month went by that I wouldn't call some author to ask what an acronym stood for and heard, "Um... well, it's this thing, but I don't know what the letters mean..."
posted by Etrigan at 6:55 AM on May 15


Which is why sometimes people working in military R&D will cook up a memorable acronym and find what it stands for later.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:58 AM on May 15


Which is why sometimes people working in military R&D will cook up a memorable acronym and find what it stands for later.

So they are just like librarians and library vendors?
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:02 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


This will drive me insane even though it is an incredibly minor point: On the fictional map with states named Sharkia and Junubia and Shimal- Junub and Shomal are the Farsi words for the cardinal directions South and North... and of course on the map the state called North is in the South and vice versa.

When it comes to Iran, the military literally doesn't even know which way is up.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 7:19 AM on May 15 [23 favorites]


this is just beautiful, really. I think I've truly found my calling!
posted by rebent at 7:24 AM on May 15


(On the other hand, I once had a SimCity region called "Sharkia" where every city was named after a shark, so I can sort of appreciate what this fictional map-maker was doing)
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 7:24 AM on May 15


Let's action this!
posted by blue_beetle at 7:49 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


what's my ask?
posted by DigDoug at 7:52 AM on May 15


The usual crappy PowerPoints, but all about how to kill more people.

You want a military or don't you?

I suspect a lot of this is Pentagon types hoping to emulate Colonel John Boyd and the OODA Loop.

Heavy stuff.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:54 AM on May 15


Masochists and insomniacs: The DODAF (pdf). 'Viewpoints and Models' link is illuminating. 'Architecture' is used a la 'Enterprise Architecture' - people, business, systems, and data - not just system hw/sw/network elements.

Folks who get good at playing the Powerpoint game can literally build a career on it. They are derisively known as 'Powerpoint Warriors', distinguishing them from those doing actual work/having mission impact.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:04 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I get the distinct impression that they are designed to fill slides, rather than communicate useful information

Absolutely. I think I've actually seen one of those slides in presentations I've been in. Very little creativity is allowed in, say, design reviews or progress reviews or briefings to the colonel, so somebody comes up with one of these... creations... and it just gets reused over and over again because of course every single presentation requires an org chart, a top level diagram, a conceptual layout, etc. No matter how good the rest of your material is, if one of these slides is not included then someone is going to complain.

Besides which, these examples aren't even the worst. Try cramming an entire org chart, from the head of the division down to the janitor, in one slide. Or (a personal favorite) trying to fit on one slide a whole functional block diagram with enough resolution to show individual circuit card operations for an entire system that involves air vehicles, ground vehicles, satellites, and multiple fixed ground stations.

Or! Schedules that extend out to 2025 that have monthly milestones. Those are always fun to read. I especially like when one of these indecipherable charts is thrown on a wall and all the brass make a big show of analysing the screen.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:10 AM on May 15


I know not with what infographics World War III will be PowerPointed, but World War IV will be PowerPointed with simple, bulleted lists.
posted by oulipian at 8:20 AM on May 15 [12 favorites]


I pretty much lost it at "anything can have Measures".
posted by Copronymus at 8:20 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


I especially like when one of these indecipherable charts is thrown on a wall and all the brass make a big show of analysing the screen.

I admit nothing, but it is possible that an unnamed multinational division headquarters in Iraq had a milestone called "CTOFL" on every long-term chart for mid-2009, dating from approximately 2006. No one is known to have ever asked or explained why exactly that division was tracking when Conan Takes Over For Leno.
posted by Etrigan at 8:38 AM on May 15 [18 favorites]


The military (well, at least the Army) lives in PowerPoint. It's ubiquitous. If you ever find yourself writing more than a page of text, you might as well fire up PP and start doing a summary slide as well, because that's the next thing you're going to get asked for.

A lot of the reporting that you see guys in World War II movies doing on little field typewriters, are today done in PowerPoint. (Or in a combination of PowerPoint and really abysmal custom software, which everyone hates and nobody uses the output from really, so the PowerPoint is really what gets rolled up.)

Obviously it's not specific to the military; PowerPoint-itis has sort of crept in to many large organizations (cf. the Edward Tufte thing about NASA using PP in lieu of technical reports). My theory is that the biggest reason is because of the ease of reuse and in particular the ease of rollup. It's not accidental that where you see a ton of PowerPoint tends to be in really hierarchal organizations where information is constantly being summarized and re-summarized and re-re-summarized. If you're a battalion commander, taking in reports from your company commanders and responsible for providing your own reports up to higher, it's a lot more convenient to get slide decks than written reports. With the slide decks, you can yank a slide or two from each CO report, toss in a couple summary slides of your own, and you're done. If everyone is sending you traditional reports, you have to read and rewrite everything.

The places you tend not to see a ton of PP, conversely, are flat/shallow organizations, because there's no reason to shoehorn information into a slide deck unless that's really the ideal format for it, which it rarely is. You can just use a traditional report, or email, or verbal conversation, whatever.

As annoying as PP is when overused, it's an attempt at solving a really hard problem: how do you scale up an organization without having the people inside the organization at the lower and especially middle levels lose all their time to "overhead" (internal information processing) work, to the point where they can't actually focus on the organizational mission anymore. All the John Boyd / OODA stuff is interesting, but it doesn't really do much about that problem.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:45 AM on May 15 [10 favorites]


This one I like and I intend to find a way to use it the next time I need to do a presentation at a full staff meeting.
posted by nubs at 8:45 AM on May 15


>> Which is why sometimes people working in military R&D will cook up a memorable acronym and find what it stands for later.

> So they are just like librarians and library vendors?


Nobody beats the U.S. Congress:

Uniting and
Strengthening
America by
Providing
Appropriate
Tools
Required to
Intercept and
Obstruct
Terrorism
Act of 2001.[1]
posted by benito.strauss at 9:37 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: disrupt the kill chain of my adversaries

... and hear the lamentations of their women.
posted by BrashTech at 9:59 AM on May 15 [7 favorites]


I think this is the water thing, maybe, but this doesn't seem weird at all to me. In terms of putting the POTUS in your organizational chart - you have to. You need to know exactly how the orders flow, as high as they go. The POTUS is in every single complete organizational chart ever, from what I recall. Like, that planning and execution chart is fucking mundane.
posted by corb at 10:05 AM on May 15


My slides are overdue for the Staff Update Brief.

Since we got a new commander, the SUB has gained a slide of the flag, for the pledge of allegiance, the Soldier's Creed, a prayer, and something else I can't remember.

I created a slide that led from where we are now to singing the national anthem and a loyalty oath and eventually to a point where the time spent building the SUB would exceed the time between SUBs.
posted by atchafalaya at 10:14 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Like Tomorrowful, for me these are just background noise of many of my days. It's important to note that a number of these are produced by private industry FOR the USDOD. Those tend to be the most tendentiously AMAZING! NEW! CAPABILITY! BLAMMO! and the most eye-wateringly vapid and mind numbing.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 11:07 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


This is a fascinating thread! When I was in university the physics professors seemed evenly split between the ones who would write everything on a whiteboard, and the ones who used PowerPoint and only went to the board to work out examples. But those PowerPoint slides were very simple, nothing like these.
As annoying as PP is when overused, it's an attempt at solving a really hard problem: how do you scale up an organization without having the people inside the organization at the lower and especially middle levels lose all their time to "overhead" (internal information processing) work, to the point where they can't actually focus on the organizational mission anymore.
But it seems like they've created a system where information itself is devalued, because the PowerPoint system lets them present so much of it at a time. The massive number of reports that are demanded by the bureaucracy, combined with a peculiar resistance to abstraction, means that each successive organizational layer (going up) has to cram more and more information into visual form, until it passes the point of regular human understanding and becomes meaningless abstract art.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:19 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Ontology's aplenty...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 12:55 PM on May 15


The whole field of Operations Research comes from planning for the invasion of Europe, I have heard.

Also I vaguely remember reading most of modern Project Management was invented as a side effect of the effort to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:38 PM on May 15


I really liked how those NSA slides got redesigned.
posted by Wild_Eep at 1:52 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


The overall effect is that of an easter basket filled with killing power.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:07 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Would love to see the animated Prezi for disrupting kill chains.
posted by vicx at 11:57 PM on May 15


And so to demonstrate the PBA conceptual view... I shall now dip my testicles in psychedelic body paint.
posted by jonp72 at 5:55 AM on May 16


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