Archive for category Interesting Facts

The problem with PowerPoint; celebrating 25 years (BBC)

If you have worked in an office in the Western world in the past 25 years, you will probably have sat through a PowerPoint presentation. But there’s a problem. They’re often boring, writes presentation expert Max Atkinson.

In the past 25 years, I’ve asked hundreds of people how many PowerPoint presentations they’ve seen that came across as really inspiring and enthusiastic.

Most struggle to come up with a single example, and the most optimistic answer I’ve heard was “two”.

So what are the main problems?


Beware of anyone who says that they’re “just going to talk to some slides” – because that’s exactly what they’ll do – without realising that they’re spending most of their time with their backs to the audience.
Barack Obama
Even Barack Obama needs an autocue on occasion

Yet eye contact plays such a fundamental part in holding an audience’s attention that even as brilliant a speaker as Barack Obama depends on an autocue to simulate it.

So remember that the more slides you have and the more there is on each slide, the more distracting it will it be for the audience – whereas the fewer and simpler the slides are, the easier it will be to keep them listening.


If there’s nothing but text on the screen, people will try to read and listen at the same time – and won’t succeed in doing either very well.

If the print is too small to read, they’ll get irritated at being expected to do the impossible. Nor does it help when speakers say “as you can see”, or the equally annoying “you probably won’t be able to read this”.


Few speakers are willing to open their mouths until they have their first slide safely in place. But all too often the slides are verbal crutches for the speaker, not visual aids for the audience.
Conference delegates sleep sweetly
Some presentations prove somewhat less than gripping

Projecting one slide after another might make it look as though you’ve prepared the presentation. But if you haven’t planned exactly what you’re going to say, you’ll have to ad lib and, if you start rambling, the audience will switch off.

To avoid this requires careful planning. Do this before thinking about slides and you won’t need as many of them – and the ones that you do decide to use are more likely to help to clarify things for the audience, rather than just remind you of what to say next.


You think bullet points make information more digestible? Think again. A dozen slides with five bullet points on each assumes that people are mentally capable of taking in a list of 60 points. If it’s a 30-minute presentation, that’s a rate of two-per-minute.
Monty Python scene with Frenchmen demonstrating sheep aircraft
This looks a fairly interesting visual aid

This highlights the biggest problem with slide-based presentations, which is that speakers mistakenly think that they can get far more information across than is actually possible in a presentation. At the heart of this is a widespread failure to appreciate that speaking and listening are fundamentally different from writing and reading.

In fact, the invention of writing was arguably the most important landmark in the history of information technology. Before writing, the amount of information that could be passed on to others was severely limited by what could be communicated in purely oral form (ie not much). But the ability to write meant that vast amounts of knowledge could be communicated at previously unimagined levels of detail.

The trouble is that PowerPoint makes it so easy to put detailed written and numerical information on slides that it leads presenters into the mistaken belief that all the detail will be successfully transmitted through the air into the brains of the audience.


A Microsoft executive recently said that one of the best PowerPoint presentations he’d ever heard had no slides with bullet points on them. This didn’t surprise me at all, because we’ve known for years that audiences don’t much like wordy slides and don’t find them as helpful as pictorial visual aids.

What does surprise me is that so many of the program’s standard templates invite users to produce lists of bullet points, when the program’s main benefits lie in the creation of images. If more presenters took advantage of that, inspiring PowerPoint presentations might become the norm, rather than the exception.

, ,

No Comments

GM Claims Chevy Volt Will Get 230 MPG–But How? (Popular Science)

General Motors CEO Fritz Henderson says the EPA will certify the Chevrolet Volt with triple-digit mileage. How’d they come up with that?

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt General Motors

[Update: The EPA issued a statement to the folks at Edmunds stepping back from GM's mileage claim: "The EPA has not tested a Chevy Volt and therefore cannot confirm the fuel economy values claimed by GM. EPA does applaud GM's commitment to designing and building the car of the future - an American-made car that will save families money, significantly reduce our dependence on foreign oil and create good-paying American jobs."]

General Motors calls the Chevrolet Volt an extended-range electric vehicle. That’s because the only motive force comes from the electric motor; the gas engine only charges the batteries. In a press conference earlier today, GM’s CEO Fritz Henderson said the Volt will have a city mileage figure of 230 miles per gallon–almost five times more efficient than a Prius. But considering the uniqueness of the Volt’s powertrain, how did the EPA get that figure?

Call it a “draft methodology.” That’s a quick way of saying the EPA is developing a few assumptions to populate a new “duty cycle” for the Volt. The duty cycle is the usage profile the agency uses when determining the city and highway mileage numbers to put on a new car’s window sticker. The latest EPA cycle, set in 2006, accounts for actual driving conditions, such as high speed, aggressive driving, use of air conditioning, and cold temperature operation.

Of course, the Volt’s fuel-consumption parameters are a bit more complex. Motor Trend reported a while back that such complexity had put GM and the EPA at odds over how to calculate the Volt’s mileage. Apparently by today’s statement from CEO Henderson (and all those “230″ ads you’ve been seeing and didn’t know it), GM and the EPA have apparently come to terms.

As John Voelcker from points out, GM says the Volt can travel for the first 40 miles on battery power alone. That means, if you never drive more than 40 miles a day, your mileage is technically “infinity.” Of course, that isn’t quite accurate over longer distances. So the EPA likely adopted a test cycle that involves driving the Volt until the battery is discharged, and then for a further distance using gasoline power. reports on a similar test routine proposed by Mike Duoba at Argonne National Laboratories, during which the Volt is driven repeatedly on four EPA highway test cycles until the battery is discharged, then drives one city cycle, totaling 51 miles. The EPA city cycle is just under 11 miles, the highway cycle about 10.26 miles. If you do the math, as Voelcker has, it works out to 232 mpg. Sounds familiar.

We’ll be watching to see when the EPA gives up the goods.


1 Comment

‘Many hurricanes’ in modern times (BBC)

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Street in New Orleans

A New Orleans street battens down as Hurricane Gustav approaches

Hurricanes in the Atlantic are more frequent than at any time in the last 1,000 years, according to research just published in the journal Nature.

Scientists examined sediments left by hurricanes that crossed the coast in North America and the Caribbean.

The record suggests modern hurricane activity is unusual – though it might have been even higher 1,000 years ago.

The possible influence of climate change on hurricanes has been a controversial topic for several years.

Study leader Michael Mann from Penn State University believes that while not providing a definitive answer, this work does add a useful piece to the puzzle.

The levels we’re seeing at the moment are within the bounds of uncertainty.
Julian Heming, UK Met Office

“It’s been hotly debated, and various teams using different computer models have come up with different answers,” he told BBC News.

“I would argue that this study presents some useful palaeoclimatic data points.”

Washing over

Hurricanes strike land with winds blowing at up to 300km per hour – strong enough to pick up sand and earth from the shore and carry it inland.

In places where there is a lagoon behind the shoreline, this leads to “overwash” – material from the shore being deposited in the lagoon, where it forms a layer in the sediment.

Researchers have studied eight such lagoons on shores where Atlantic hurricanes regularly make landfall – seven around the US mainland and one in Puerto Rico.

Over time, Dr Mann’s team believes, the number of hurricanes making landfall on these sites will be approximately proportional to the total number of hurricanes formed – so these zones provide a long-term record of how hurricane frequency has changed over the centuries.

Hurricane Dean from space

Wind shear at altitude can prevent a tropical storm’s structure developing

The last decade has seen an average of 17 hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic – earlier in the century, half that number were recorded.

But current levels were matched and perhaps exceeded during the Mediaeval Climate Anomaly (also known as the Mediaeval Warm Period) about 1,000 years ago.

“I think if there’s one standout result (from this study), it’s that the high storm counts we’ve seen in the last 10 to 15 years could have been matched or even exceeded in past periods,” commented Julian Heming, a tropical storm specialist from the UK Met Office who was not involved in the new research.

“So it’s worth feeding into the debate about whether what we’re seeing now is exceptional or something related to multi-decadal or even multi-centennial variability; and it does tell us that the levels we’re seeing at the moment are within the bounds of uncertainty.”

Different strokes

Dr Mann’s team also used a pre-existing computer model of hurricane generation to estimate activity over the same 1,500-year period.

The model includes three factors known to be important in determining hurricane formation: sea surface temperature in the tropical Atlantic Ocean, the El Nino/La Nina cycle in the eastern Pacific, and another natural climatic cycle, the North Atlantic Oscillation.

This analysis suggests, Dr Mann argues, that the hurricane peak 1,000 years ago and the current high activity are not produced by identical sets of circumstances.

Then, he says, an extended period of La Nina conditions in the Pacific – which aid hurricane formation – co-incided with relatively warm conditions in the Atlantic.

Now, the high number is simply driven by warming waters in the Atlantic – which is projected to increase in the coming decades.

“Even though the levels of activity are similar (between 1,000 years ago and now), the factors behind that are different,” said Dr Mann.

“The implication is that if everything else is equal – and we don’t know that about El Nino – then warming of the tropical Atlantic should lead to increasing levels of Atlantic tropical cyclone activity.”

, , ,

No Comments

Putin’s action-man holiday album (BBC)

Putin swims in a lake in the Siberian Tuva region

The images are meant to portray a man who is in charge

By James Rodgers
BBC News

The Tuva holidays of Vladimir Putin – the title of a summer blockbuster film?

The name of a thriller about an ex-KGB officer just trying to enjoy a quiet life, but who keeps getting drawn back to solve problems which defeat everyone else?

No, but there might be something to that…

It is actually the headline which the website of one of Russia’s leading news agencies, Ria Novosti, put above a selection of official photographs of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin enjoying a summer break in a remote region of Siberia.

Putin sits in a tree while traveling in the Siberian Tuva region of Russia

Mr Putin is shown standing on a rocky mountain slope; resting in the branches of a tree; swimming in a river; riding a horse.

In most of the photos, he wears military-style clothes and boots. In the equestrian shots, he is shirtless.

In a country where most men do not live until the age of 60, Mr Putin stands out as an example of someone who has looked after himself.

Smoking and drinking are big factors in Russia’s low male life expectancy.

Mr Putin will be 57 in October. He looks in better physical shape than many Russian men 20 years his junior.

His media team want to make sure that message – like Mr Putin’s chest – does not remain hidden.

The implication, obviously, is that he knows how to look after the country too.

To anyone fed up with their father/husband/boss dragging himself out of bed, or going to work so hung over he does not really know what he is doing, these pictures say: “At least there is one man who is in control”.

Lost in translation

That is important for the prime minister, whose main task is to steer Russia through the storms of economic crisis.

Putin rides a horse outside the town of Kyzyl in Southern Siberia, 3 August

Putin’s equestrian skills were not the only things on display

It also serves as a reminder that he has in no sense become less active since ending his time as president.

The suggestion is that he would be in good shape to go back to the top job in 2012 if that is the way things turn out.

The Kremlin either does not know, or does not care, how these pictures will be seen by some people in the West.

The photographs of a bare-chested Mr Putin riding a horse through mountain scenery may of course put some people more in mind of a recent Hollywood film about gay cowboys.

That is not the message these pictures, and those of previous years, send out to the majority of Russians.

In Russia, they reinforce Mr Putin’s image as a man many men aspire to be, and – as a recent pop song suggested – many women aspire to be with.


1 Comment

How vital were Cold War spies? (BBC)

By Gordon Corera
BBC Security Correspondent

Kim Philby

British spy Kim Philby handed over secrets to the Soviets

The world of espionage lies at the heart of the mythology of the Cold War.

Along with nuclear weapons, spies were the emblems of the conflict.

But while the tales of adventure, betrayal and mole hunts have proved a source of rich inspiration for thriller writers, did they actually make a difference to the outcome?

Did intelligence make the Cold War hotter or colder?

It is difficult to know the answer.

“There were secrets that were important to keep secret and there was intelligence which it would be very helpful to have known,” argues former British Foreign Secretary David Owen.

“But my own instinct is that we didn’t really – with a few exceptions and a few important exceptions – really know exactly what was going on.”

One reason it is hard to make a judgement is that much of the intelligence collected was military or tactical in nature, and would only have proven useful if the Cold War had gone hot.

Much effort was expended in stealing secrets like the Soviet order of battle or the design of new Soviet tanks which would have been invaluable in case of war.

Intelligence during the Cold War had a very big impact on the shape and size of the British defence programme
Sir David Omand
Former UK Intelligence and Security Coordinator

This type of intelligence was collected by electronic means and satellite reconnaissance, as well as by human spies. It was used to work out how to best equip and prepare the military.

Sir David Omand, the former UK Intelligence and Security Coordinator, says: “Intelligence during the Cold War had a very big impact on the shape and size of the British defence programme, on the kinds of equipment we bought and very specifically the actual capabilities that were built into that equipment to be able to encounter whatever intelligence showed was the capability of Warsaw Pact forces.”

During times of “hot war”, intelligence plays an important but ultimately secondary role in supporting military operations.

But, during periods of tension short of full-scale military action like the Cold War, intelligence takes on a more central position.

In the absence of traditional warfare, intelligence becomes itself the primary battleground as each side tries to understand the enemy’s capabilities and intentions, as it seeks to undermine their position using covert action, psychological operations and forms of subversion.

Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) had a troubled beginning to the Cold War, not least because it was penetrated by its Soviet counterpart, with men like Kim Philby and George Blake handing over secrets.

But slowly it became more professional, recruiting and running agents who could provide information on the activities of the Soviet bloc.

Intelligence sceptic

Some former diplomats query the record of intelligence in providing insight into political trends.

Rodric Braithwaite, a former ambassador to Russia at the end of the Cold War and later Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, is something of an intelligence sceptic.

Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan in 1987

A Soviet spy’s insights changed Thatcher and Reagan’s approach

“I was always rather encouraged by the Joint Intelligence Committee, who used to send us drafts of their assessments on Soviet affairs with the secret bits cut out because they didn’t want to have them sloshing about in Moscow.

“With the secret bits out, the conclusions they were coming to were exactly the same ones that we were coming to in Moscow because the information that mattered was available at both ends and it was mostly either conversations with people, which were not particularly secret, or what was in the newspapers.”

But Sir Gerry Warner, a former deputy chief of MI6, believes intelligence helped ensure politicians had a realistic understanding of what the Soviet Union was up to.

“It is always a temptation if somebody is saying ‘I am a friend of yours and I don’t mean any harm’ to accept that.

“But if you are being told all the time by a microphone in your ear that it is totally untrue and that he’s holding a knife behind his back, he’s about to kick you where it hurts, the temptation is less to trust him.”

Running agents behind the Iron Curtain involved risk – risk to the life of an agent but also politically in terms of raising the temperature.

“The main concern was always balancing the value of possible intelligence against the risk,” explains Sir Gerry Warner.

“If an espionage operation was uncovered it was always an important public event – the media got into it, the other side would play it up – and therefore there was a political risk clearly.”

Understanding intentions

Spy rows flared periodically. In the early 1970s, the UK expelled more than 100 Soviet diplomats from its embassy in London.

So did these kind of operations and activities fuel distrust and paranoia?

The identity of most agents remains secret but a few have become public and one or two of those can be claimed to have made a real impact.

One was Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in Soviet military intelligence.

Knowing your enemy is very important indeed
Baroness Daphne Park
Former MI6 controller

His information – passed to MI6 and the CIA in the early 1960s – helped President Kennedy manage the Cuban missile crisis successfully by identifying the extent of Soviet missile capability and how far the Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev was likely to push events.

The most useful strategic intelligence comes from penetrating the leadership of your enemy so that you understand not just their military capability but their intentions.

That was something MI6 only managed late in the Cold War largely thanks to KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, who spent a decade towards the end of the Cold War supplying intelligence to MI6 which revealed how paranoid the Soviet leadership was of a first nuclear strike by Nato.

“The British service could not believe it but because I proved it very well they eventually believed it,” he said.

“Knowing your enemy is very important indeed,” argues Baroness Daphne Park, a former MI6 controller.

“It was very important that we should know that they were as paranoid as that. I don’t see how we would have known it any other way.”

Col Gordievsky’s insights had a profound effect on both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in rethinking how they approached the Soviet Union, which in turn helped them manage the end of the Cold War.

“What nobody wanted was to be surprised,” Sir John Scarlett, the chief of MI6, told me in his office.

“And that intelligence knowledge, intelligence base if you like, gave knowledge which greatly reduced that fear of a surprise attack.

“And, as the Cold War developed, more confidence developed that the other side was understood, and that helped manage the situation and was a key reason why we got to the end without a blowout.”

The one thing the spies failed to predict, along with everyone else, was of course the end of the Cold War itself.

, ,

1 Comment