Peak IT, or Productivity Lost

Things used to be better.

For power-users such as myself, the days of sensible and consistent applications seem to be over.  It is not the case that things were ever perfect, or all that they could or should be.  But at some point between the days of PPP and nights of Wi-Fi, there was a time when each of the commonly known systems seemed tuned to a handful of use cases.  I respectfully submit that this was not a function merely of stereotyping and marketring, but that before every system tried to be all things to all people, software and operating systems were tuned to task.

Here’s an example I just came across.  Microsoft has a product called Powerpoint, which has killed milliions of people.  Not only is is it a hazard to viewers (“death by PowerPoint”), it is a menace to those who use it.  As with any weapon, careless handling will just kill the wielder.

PowerPoint, to its great credit, was not developed by Micro-Soft.  Instead, the Beast from Redmond purchased the software (or the company which produced the software), and hastily incorporated it into their MS Office suite, an arsenal of toxic tools.

Here’s the problem at hand.  I am using a table to construct a RACI chart.  powerPoint tables dso not behave like the tables in Excel or Word, which share a lot in the way of keystrokes.  They are miserably difficult to maintan. For example, to this day I have not found a way to paste tabular data from Excel into PowerPoint tables.  PowerPoint will happily embed an Excel table, but this is somewhat volatile, incurs overhead, and requires that Excel (actually a key .dll from Excel) be fired up to edit the darned thing.  So I really want the table to ba a “proper” powerPoint table.

Adding a new row at the bottom is a non-trivial exercise.  You can use your mouse to surf through the”ribbon”, a dysfunctional menu system at the top of everything.  You can use your mouse to navigate a contextual menu, which is about as difficult, and which gets in your way at the same time you are trying to work on anyting *not* requireiung a context menu.  Or you can use a keyboard shortcut.  GREAT!  This is what I wanted!  but there’s a problem here.  This is the list of four keyboard shortcuts for adding a single row above or below your current row, or adding a single column left or right of your current column.

  • Alt+JLV     =     insert above
  • Alt+JLE     =     insert below
  • Alt+JLL     =     insert left
  • Alt+JLI      =     insert right

The length and difficulty in memorizing these kb shortcuts are not even the root issue.  The root issue is that the four are assigned an equal rank, when there should be a primary action (add new row below), a distant secondary (add new column right), and then the other two.  Why?  because when you use the keyboard to add a new row, you are most likely doing data entry (or making it up as you go along, uh I mean engineering a solution in PowerPoint).  People who use keyboard shortcuts are *typing*.  People who type work from left to right, and then from top to bottom.  The left to right aspect is covered within a given cell by the straightforward act of typing, one character at a time.  The TAB key will get you to the next cell, as well as taking you from the last cell in a row to the first cell on the next line, PROVIDED that the next line already exists.

Oh, wait.

The tab key when pressed in the last cell on the last row actually WILL create a new row before.

Never mind.

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11 thoughts on “Peak IT, or Productivity Lost”

  1. Haakon Dahl:
    PowerPoint, to its great credit, was not developed by Micro-Soft.  Instead, the Beast from Redmond purchased the software (or the company which produced the software), and hastily incorporated it into their MS Office suite, an arsenal of toxic tools.

    Great use of “toxic”!

    I once had to work with a program manager who was a terrible engineer but rather deft at company politics.  Eventually he tired of exercising those who mopped up behind him and moved on to become the manager of Excel for MS.  Explains everything for me…

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  2. I agree that the main applications have suffered by accretion of function over the years.  That is one reason why I have switched to Linux and its open source applications.  They tend to be more focused on a single application.  I am looking for a presentation application that I like, though

    I once saw an Edward Tufte talk on presenting information (If you get a chance to see him, jump on it).  He was very much against PowerPoint and had a hilarious take on the Gettysburg address if it had been a PowerPoint presentation.  I can’t find a link to that, but this seems to be one of the first examples:

    http://www.norvig.com/Gettysburg/

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  3. Back when I did presentations, I always used SliTeX, which was a standard part of the LaTeX document preparation system.  It was subsequently broken out of the main distribution, and is now available (but completely compatible) in the slides class.  There are many fancier TeX-based presentation tools, including those which provide the fancy gew-gaws people now demand to cover for lack of content.

    The advantage of TeX is that you have all of the text formatting power (tables, mathematics, lists, multiple columns, etc.) that you have in the regular document preparation language and it all works precisely the same way.  Nothing could be easier than taking a table or chart out of your paper and dropping it into a presentation.  And if you stick to the standard styles, they’ll keep you from making those busy slides that nobody after the second row can read for which PowerPoint is known.  (Of course, since you’re completely in charge, you can do so if you like, but if you stick with defaults you’ll be OK.)

    Finally, since it’s TeX, there’s a 30 year record of 100% upward compatibility, so you don’t have the problem of dusting off an old presentation and discovering it can’t be read or looks like garbage when loaded into a recent version of PowerPoint thanks to Microsoft’s “strategic incompatibility”.

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  4. WillowSpring:
    I agree that the main applications have suffered by accretion of function over the years.  That is one reason why I have switched to Linux and its open source applications.  They tend to be more focused on a single application.  I am looking for a presentation application that I like, though

    I once saw an Edward Tufte talk on presenting information (If you get a chance to see him, jump on it).  He was very much against PowerPoint and had a hilarious take on the Gettysburg address if it had been a PowerPoint presentation.  I can’t find a link to that, but this seems to be one of the first examples:

    http://www.norvig.com/Gettysburg/

    I own all of his books.

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  5. Pardon the curmudgeon ramble, apology in the last line….

    Presenting a complex table in power point is missing the point of communication. You use Powerpoint to backup your presentation , with few words and visuals and save the tables for handouts. You talk your conclusions, explain your data and what it tells you. You tell jokes, establish rapport and communicate no more than three ideas per half hour. Any talk longer than a half hour should be punishable by immediate atomic wedgies.

    My first major presentation was seventy five slides, each keyed to a component of the case I was building on IT architecture. It took place in a decommissioned cathedral in Amsterdam and I even put the drunk Aussies to sleep.

    I got better. All talks last 30 minutes, convey three things , lots of images to back up stories and the rest of the time was for questions.

    Best received speech was when I illustrated a point by throwing hardballs with built in accelerometers into the audience to illustrate the coming move from scarcity of compute power to the glut. It could be that they got to keep the hardballs which recorded speed of each pitch. (Only the codgers will remember compute scarcity…)

    Aside from all that, some professions require the death by powerpoint  ritual. My sympathies.

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  6. I am developing artifacts.  I am using PowerPoint to translate many documents into few slides.  People won’t read documents because they are not required to.  That is, they are not held accountable to know and implement what it says on paper.  I am not in a supervisory position right now, cooling my heels as a sort of internal consultant while waiting for the wheel to turn.  So I’m trying to package some of the content in as useful a format as possible.

    • Nobody reads material beforehand
    • Nobody sticks to the topic at hand during a presentation
    • Everybody wants a copy of the slide deck afterward, as they were unprepared to learn

    So… I write FAT stacks of slides, with most of them hidden, and blow through the “supporting” material during the presentation.

    These products will outlast me here, as I am shortly to go elsewhere.  So I use PowerPoint as a “touchstone” for barely literate technical managers, who have almost all risen to a job they cannot possibly perform without — well — without somebody like me holding their feet to the fire.  I’m leaving artifacts of management behind, as if we had management.

    Don’t get me wrong — they’re good with technical stuff.  But that is no longer their job.  And the few in the area who recognize this are either ill-equipped or ill-positioned to make things happen.

    The leader of our gang is a good man, new in the job, who fully recognizes the things I’m talking about.  But he’s reluctant to put a team under me, as I’m SUPPOSEDLY leaving soon.  I understand this.  At the same time, I think it’s costing more than he knows.

    I am fortunate that in this crowd, the root causes of ongoing failure trend toward weak or stupid, but not evil.  This is an improvement over what it had been some time ago.

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