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“Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”
April 27, 2010 2:59 PM   Subscribe

Confused about the complexity of American military strategy in Afghanistan? Fret no more: PowerPoint to the rescue! [NYT story]
posted by Kskomsvold (50 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Edward Tufte must be having a small heart attack right about now - PowerPoint is Evil
posted by exclaim at 3:02 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't even imagine how many hours it would take to understand that slide, but I assume that it took a factor of ten greater to produce it.

The yuk-yuk quote at the end of the NYTimes article is pretty telling:
Senior officers say the program [PowerPoint] does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”
posted by peeedro at 3:03 PM on April 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

When you're a general, every problem can be solved with bullets.
posted by mattdidthat at 3:05 PM on April 27, 2010


Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

Best. George Clooney. Movie. EVAR.
posted by GuyZero at 3:08 PM on April 27, 2010


Can someone please find Power Point Rangers? These are my slides...
posted by fixedgear at 3:08 PM on April 27, 2010


You go to war with the power point you have, not the power point you want. Or something.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 3:09 PM on April 27, 2010


If ——//——► means significant delay they might as well put that symbol over the whole damn slide.
posted by wcfields at 3:11 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


David Byrne: "I ♥ PowerPoint" (2003, 2004, 2005) [prev]
posted by filthy light thief at 3:13 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Every time you use Powerpoint, Edward Tufte kills a kitten.
posted by _dario at 3:15 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


And speaking of Afghanistan, let's go skiing.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 3:16 PM on April 27, 2010


Mark Lombardi lives! [wiki] Has there ever been a Mark Lombardi post? There should be.
posted by The Bellman at 3:17 PM on April 27, 2010


How many slides does it take to say "We're fucked"?
posted by vibrotronica at 3:18 PM on April 27, 2010


Dizzam!
posted by PuppyCat at 3:19 PM on April 27, 2010


An oldie but a goodie: The Gettysburg Address as presented in Powerpoint.
posted by dammitjim at 3:20 PM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I believe that slide probably originated from this research paper; which is a System Dynamics approach to understanding complexity. The paper is much clearer, though there are some questionable assumptions. I think the System Dynamics approach is very useful for gaining insight into these types of problems (military intervention and the associated consequences) as it promotes systems thinking, rather than a typical 'cause and effect' perspective.

Unfortunately that diagram is poorly constructed and breaks many of the rules that System Dynamics sketches should follow (identification of polarity between variables, clear identification of feedback loops and feedback loop type) as well as being overly complex.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 3:22 PM on April 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


As a Slashdot commenter pointed out, this is just a visualization of some of the complex relationships that exist in Afghanistan. Add some sparklines and at least you could show measures of progress in those relationships (but this is an open-ended war, so progress seems not to be the goal).
posted by acro at 3:24 PM on April 27, 2010


Should have done it in Visio instead.
posted by Electric Dragon at 3:24 PM on April 27, 2010


I like how you get over to the "narcotics" part and all the arrows just go whizzing by...
posted by el_lupino at 3:29 PM on April 27, 2010


There's nothing wrong with powerpoint, its just a slide projector. What's wrong is putting your whole speech into bullet points and reading them off the screen along with some incomprehensible graphs.
posted by empath at 3:30 PM on April 27, 2010


So when is Afghanistan 7 coming out?
posted by Danf at 3:34 PM on April 27, 2010


Yeah, now I'm not afraid at all......
posted by lumpenprole at 3:44 PM on April 27, 2010


This Vanity Fair profile on General Petraeus might be a useful addendum here.
Cheerful by nature, he is eager to please and eager to explain. Petraeus is a world-class explainer. There is scarcely a soldier who has served with him who has not, in the general’s own words, “been PowerPointed to within an inch of his life.” His presentations are masterworks of explication that aspire to the level of art. They reflect his deep understanding of—indeed, his love for—the byzantine machinery of America’s military-industrial complex.
posted by sciurus at 3:44 PM on April 27, 2010


ObTufte also: PowerPoint Does Rocket Science shows in some detail how correct facts forced into the bullet point format can lead to disaster, or at least, utterly fail to prevent it, when that was exactly the aim in the first place.
posted by Western Infidels at 3:46 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


> I can't even imagine how many hours it would take to understand that slide...

Easy. Just replace the entire graphic with one word: clusterfuck.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:46 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Slide 1 -

" we cannot win this war "



END OF PRESENTATION
posted by sgt.serenity at 3:54 PM on April 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


wait, I don't get it. Where's the liberal media giving aid to terrorists in that slide?
posted by shmegegge at 4:05 PM on April 27, 2010


Since others have covered the secondary links I'd add I'll just say:

I swear I've read this article every 18-24 months for the last decade or so.
posted by sparkletone at 4:09 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I dunno, I think that's a pretty good job of reducing an incredibly complex problem to one sheet of paper. Some things just don't simplify well, and wars are one of them, but that looks like a damn fine cheat sheet.

Just because you can't instantly look at it and understand it doesn't make it a bad graphic. You can't instantly look at the war and understand it either. If the slide was easy to grasp, it wouldn't be doing its job.
posted by Malor at 4:19 PM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think maybe the complexity of the slide is justifiable: the situation in Afghanistan is very complex.

However, I can't help but think they want people to be distracted by the complexity of the situation, because that distracts them from asking: "What are we trying to accomplish?" Which is something neither Bush nor Obama has ever explained coherently.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:19 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Then again, you could also make a little clip art Bin Laden that says "I haven't been in Afghanistan in 6 years lol" in a talk bubble and call it a day.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:22 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not that anyone cares at this point, but I really doubt the diagram was made in Powerpoint - it was probably made in a proper drawing program, and merely displayed in Powerpoint which jives with what empath said above.
posted by Berkun at 4:28 PM on April 27, 2010


I've done this type of graph before. They're not made to explain every single item or relationship, but to drive home the point that a particular situation or system is much more complex than what the audience believes, and cannot, indeed, be summarized in a 5 bullets Powerpoint slide.
posted by elgilito at 4:38 PM on April 27, 2010


Not a bad wee diagram, explaining why we've comprehensively failed to find military/policy options to deal with the complexity of the problem. Leaves me thinking, oooo, which thread to pull?
posted by YouRebelScum at 4:48 PM on April 27, 2010


You have an un-winnable war. Your career depends on explaining to a bunch of folks how to win the war. Telling them it cannot be won is not an option.

You need to have enough cover story to make it seem like it is winnable, but really, really hard to win, and you also need to fill it with enough quibble points so they'll get busy arguing with each other and not pointing out the fact you've given exactly zero answers on how to win the war.

Powerpoint might be the tool, but the problem is much deeper.
posted by yeloson at 4:48 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: I swear I've read this article every 18-24 months for the last decade or so.
posted by hippybear at 4:53 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Malor: Just because you can't instantly look at it and understand it doesn't make it a bad graphic. You can't instantly look at the war and understand it either. If the slide was easy to grasp, it wouldn't be doing its job.
I wonder if that may be truer than we know. The NYT article doesn't say who made the slide, or for what purpose. The large version of the slide bears the mark of a for-profit management and IT consulting company, not of a military or government department.

Could it be that the slide was intended to convey shock and awe as part of a sales pitch, that it deliberately makes the situation look more complicated in order to justify consultancy fees?

In any case, I don't think this was anyone's idea of a serious visualization of anything. Besides being generally unintelligible spaghetti, there is no title that helps a first-time viewer understand it purpose, no key worthy of the name, the big titles obscure the smaller items below them, etc. What are the arrows supposed to mean, anyway?
posted by Western Infidels at 5:04 PM on April 27, 2010


Wasn't this exact chart news (even appearing on the Colbert Report) a couple of months ago?
posted by indubitable at 5:14 PM on April 27, 2010


The Card Cheat: “Easy. Just replace the entire graphic with one word: clusterfuck.

Close, but you really need three words: "time and materials".

That's gotta be a million-dollar slide, easy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:25 PM on April 27, 2010


What are the arrows supposed to mean, anyway?

The arrows suggest that there is a causal relationship between the variables. A sequence of these variables that can be traced from stock (green box) to flow is considered to be a feedback loop (though as I mentioned earlier, this is poorly done here).

PA consulting are well known in the field of System Dynamics. A likely explanation is that this was part of a group brainstorming session, and was later converted into a more manageable and clearer form. What is hard to grasp from the image, is that within each variable there would be an equation defined (through regression, expert judgment, other). So this you can create a simulation of the situation, and you explore the consequences of various levers, interventions etc.

If you want to play around with such a type of model I recommend Vensim PLE for constructing such sketches, that can have functional ability.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 6:11 PM on April 27, 2010


War propaganda from Afghanistan
posted by homunculus at 6:58 PM on April 27, 2010


Just because you can't instantly look at it and understand it doesn't make it a bad graphic. You can't instantly look at the war and understand it either. If the slide was easy to grasp, it wouldn't be doing its job.

Yes, and wasn't the article's point supposed to be that PP presentations tend to reduce complexity to bullet points? That was a pretty shitty slide to choose as their centerpiece for why PP is bad.

Actually, I'm glad I have a chance here to state for the record that it's absolutely ridiculous that anyone would blame a piece of software (or even make that piece of software the symbol) for ineptitude and waste in the military. You can write ANYTHING on a PP slide. Anything at all. Whose fault is it that the stuff the slides say is inane?

Oh, right. Bill Gates.
posted by nosila at 7:01 PM on April 27, 2010


Actually, I'm glad I have a chance here to state for the record that it's absolutely ridiculous that anyone would blame a piece of software (or even make that piece of software the symbol) for ineptitude and waste in the military. You can write ANYTHING on a PP slide. Anything at all. Whose fault is it that the stuff the slides say is inane?
I think the implication is that Microsoft bundled a tool with the Office suite that taught lots of newb MBAs and presenters to pour bullet points into an auto-generated outline and decorate it with transitions and clipart rather than communicating effectively.

Anyone could have put that stake in the ground, but MS did. Defaults matter.
posted by verb at 7:24 PM on April 27, 2010


Every time you use Powerpoint, Edward Tufte kills a kitten.

Tufte probably used a gatling gun after this presentation.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:36 PM on April 27, 2010


I'm going to Afghanistan, and I've seen this slide in some of the counterinsurgency training I've gotten. As someone noted above, it's really meant to be a backdrop for discussion by the presenter of how complex the fight is, and how seemingly minor actions by even the most junior soldier can have huge unintended consequences. Everybody hates PowerPoint, but it's what we've got. The important thing here is that generals like McChrystal are trying to get COIN theory and practice down to the lowest levels.
posted by atchafalaya at 2:01 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Be safe, atchafalaya, and thanks.
posted by sciurus at 5:37 AM on April 28, 2010


I think the implication is that Microsoft bundled a tool with the Office suite that taught lots of newb MBAs and presenters to pour bullet points into an auto-generated outline and decorate it with transitions and clipart rather than communicating effectively.

I see your point, but I disagree with blaming the medium. I've heard this same conversation in academic circles numerous times, and I almost invariably hate PP presentations too, but how about some bullets?

- People are supposed to expand upon their bullet points with their voices, not just read the points and move on.

- PP is a blank slate. There is nothing to keep you from making the most complex possible argument on a PP slide or series thereof if you so choose.

- The problem here, as I see it, is in part the failure of the educational system to teach people how to think for themselves. PP definitely enables that, and its popularity and success may be an effect of a general decline in original thought, but there is so much more to talk about here than PP.

(Okay, that last one shouldn't be a bullet point, but c'mon.)
posted by nosila at 5:56 AM on April 28, 2010


nosila: “PP is a blank slate.

Except it's not.

You can use PowerPoint effectively and inoffensively — I think Tufte even gives a presentation (or has a book) on how to do this. You can use it just like you'd use a slide projector or overhead, with the limitation that you can't draw on it as easily and the resolution is lower. But it can be done.

But the problem, the single thing that turns Powerpoint from a force for good and convenience into one of mind-numbing evil, is the goddamn templates.

You have to work to not use the templates. Even if you're not supplied with an organizational template slide (god how I hate those things), every time you create a new slide you're prompted with half a dozen or so different not-really-blank 'blank slides.' And they're all pretty dismal: one centered chart plus a giant title; bullet points plus a giant title; paragraph of text plus a giant title. But they're right there, practically begging to be used. It shouldn't be any surprise that so many crap presentations, given that temptation.

You can't look at Powerpoint and just ignore those templates, because they drive how the software is typically used. As verb said above, defaults matter. If your software has shitty defaults and encourages users to produce crap, it's poorly-designed software. And you really have to fight with Powerpoint to not make a really awful presentation. (It is, however, almost hilariously easy to produce a passable presentation that takes up fifteen or twenty minutes but doesn't actually communicate any information. As a way to defuse or misdirect or just render unconscious a hostile audience, you can't beat it. This leads me to suspect that it is less a presentation tool than a cleverly disguised ass-covering tool.)

The fact that you can do good stuff with Powerpoint doesn't mean that a typical company or agency (particularly one in a technical field, where you don't want people ass-covering) wouldn't be better off, at the end of the day, by just deep-sixing it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:39 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


A PowerPoint Briefing About Why PowerPoint Is Bad For Briefing :)
posted by lullaby at 9:27 AM on April 28, 2010


War On String May Be Unwinnable, Says Cat General
posted by ovvl at 3:22 PM on April 28, 2010


Yeah, these are good points you're making, verb and Kadin2048. Honestly, I can't believe I was defending Powerpoint. I'm trying to make a stupid presentation (actually, an unstupid presentation) in it right now, and it's pissing me off to no end.

Still, my meager and overshadowed point holds up a bit - I'm trying really hard not to just read bullets to and flash GIANT TITLES AT people because I'm aware that it's idiotic. This is what people should do.

But again, your points are good. Powerful points. Yes.
posted by nosila at 7:01 PM on April 28, 2010


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