Archive of May 2017

Historical Background of Spreadsheets

Christopher Browne offers a nice history, and also some good thoughts on where spreadsheets can be improved.

It’s fascinating to find out that there were alternative systems to using capital letters for columns and numerals for rows, e.g. “A1” and “B3”. The primary alternative was used by Microsoft MultiPlan and others, with rows and columns numbered with “R” or “C” marking the distinction, e.g. “R1C1” and “R2C3”.

I largely agree with his points about offering increased aesthetic formatting capabilities into spreadsheet software, but I disagree to the extent that visual distinctions like cell shading, proper alignment of numerals, distinguishing headers, etc. add meaning and offer non-trivial improvements. My concern is that this is only the case when they are used for that purpose, and spreadsheet software does little to make this easy for users.

It’s also clear that spreadsheets are frequently used as quasi-databases, which exposes much of their fragility. I have yet to see a convincing proposal for making relational databases with all of their benefits more accessible to users in the way that spreadsheets are. How can we introduce the integrity of these types of systems in ways that help users take advantage of them, without introducing a steep learning curve?

I think of spreadsheet software as the most accessible modern programming environment. Projects like Jupyter offer a very different take on a programmable document, but I long for something that improves on the power of spreadsheet software to give people a way to interact with information and make sense of it.

Takeaways on Teaching Type

Amy Papaelias reflects on a Teaching Type panel she participated in a couple of months back. Her key takeaways:

  • Surprise! There are many ways to teach typography.
  • Reading matters. Well, maybe sometimes. Not always. But it should. Most of the time.
  • Screen typography is just typography.
  • “Good” typography is a loaded term.
  • Typography education doesn’t end with one class.

Lots of great discussion in here, which resonates with me. Personally, I believe typography is up there with persuasive speaking and computer programming in terms of contemporary subjects not particularly well-served currently, which I believe should be more broadly infused into everything we teach and learn. Papelias writes:

Typography is embedded in every design class where language is represented in visual form. We teach typography all the time: when we teach web design, or senior thesis, or branding, or design history, or interaction design or even introductory classes taken prior to the actual Typography course.

I just think that scoping this to design education is way too small. There’s a ton in the design world that is inexorably bound up with capitalism and elitism. The part of good typography that has to do with communicating better—everyone needs access to that, not just companies which can afford to invest in improving their branding and footprint, and not just publishers who control access to information and compete with each other on the qualities of their experiences over the quality of their content.

How do we broaden access to the basic skills of typography that have to do with improving one’s ability to communicate?

Seeing Theory

Impressive work from Daniel Kunin:

Statistics is quickly becoming the most important and multi-disciplinary field of mathematics. According to the American Statistical Association, “statistician” is one of the top ten fastest-growing occupations and statistics is one of the fastest-growing bachelor degrees. Statistical literacy is essential to our data driven society. Yet, for all the increased importance and demand for statistical competence, the pedagogical approaches in statistics have barely changed. Using Mike Bostock’s data visualization software, D3.js, Seeing Theory visualizes the fundamental concepts covered in an introductory college statistics or Advanced Placement statistics class. Students are encouraged to use Seeing Theory as an additional resource to their textbook, professor and peers.

When It Comes to Student Satisfaction, Faculty Matter Most

Freddie DeBoer offers some conclusions based on The Gallup-Purdue Index 2015 Report: The Relationship Between Student Debt, Experiences and Perceptions of College Worth:

[This] research tells us what ought to have always been clear: that faculty, and the ability for faculty to form meaningful relationships with students, are the most important part of a satisfying education. Check it out.

Of course, I am biased and like reading things which confirm my bias. Nevertheless, this type of thing really should be obvious. It’s gratifying to have some well-researched data to back up what we already know.

How to take great notes

Some solid tips from FutureLearn on taking notes. A couple stand out especially to me:

Don’t just transcribe

Whether you’re sat watching a video, or in a lecture hall, it’s easy to just frantically try and scribble down everything the speaker is saying. The result is usually smudged, nonsensical notes and a sore hand. You end up focusing on transcribing instead of learning. Try and filter what the speaker is saying, listen for key points, or jot down things to research further.

I’d add that it’s quite easy to disengage and go into a passive mode if you try to get things down word for word. Passing what you’re hearing and seeing through your own filter nudges your mind to think through what it’s absorbing for itself.

This advice at the end is great as well:

Play to your strengths – prefer learning by listening? Record yourself reading your notes. Prefer visual learning? Get artistic and draw out concepts and illustrations. There’s no one way to take good notes, it’s about what suits you.

For some inspiration here, have a look at Sketchnote Army or get yourself a copy of Lynda Barry’s excellent Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor.