funny math

The New Math Explains

I love these.

bad explanations education textbooks

Textbooks = Explaining Fail?

Seth Godin thinks so:

Textbooks have very little narrative. They don’t take you from a place of ignorance to a place of insight. Instead, even the best marketing textbooks surround you with a fairly non-connected series of vocabulary words, oversimplified problems and random examples.

I agree that textbooks of this sort fall flat on their faces, and it sounds like textbook standards have slipped considerably. But I firmly stand by the idea of a textbook. To me a single volume that takes you from zero knowledge to thorough understanding is invaluable. Popular nonfiction publishers are less likely to approach subjects that way, because it can result in hard-to-market doorstop-sized behemoths.

But I also like Godin’s alternative proposal:

The solution seems simple to me. Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it’s part of their job, remember?) When you have a class to teach, assemble 100 of the best pieces, put them in a pdf or on a kindle or a website (or even in a looseleaf notebook) and there, you’re done.

business glossary jargon textbooks

The Most Underrated Business Document

I think it’s the glossary.

I’ve read (and written) more BRDs, MRDs, PRDs, RFPs, agenda notes, and PowerPoint epics than I care to remember, and very few of them have included glossaries. This is too bad, because in many cases, that was the one document I really needed — a list of simple definitions for unfamiliar terminology, names, and the like related to the project/idea/problem at hand. There’s a reason you find one in the back of every textbook.

In my experience, most business ideas and concepts — even technical concepts — are simple enough for a smartish laymen to understand. And your typical company has no shortage of planning meetings dedicated to going over business ideas. Yet confusion runs rampant in corporate life. I blame vocabulary, at least in part (I have to give good ol’ BS top honors).

It’s human not to know some specialized terminology, so you’ll naturally miss words during some presentations and meetings. If you miss enough words, you can’t follow everything the speaker is saying — even if what he’s saying is actually very simple.

When you’re sitting at a conference table, you might not be able to look the word up until later. At that point, you’ve already missed the thread of the discussion. This is especially tricky when you’ve just started a new job, since companies tend to have their own house jargon on top of industry terminology.

In unhealthy teams, corporate psychology can pour gas on the problem. Mastery of terminology is a hard-won advantage at work, and there’s a natural tendency to keep your advantages to yourself. So, some people end up using specialized vocabulary to thump their chest (on an unconscious level, anyway). And if somebody else is confused by an unfamiliar term, he may not ask for a definition because he thinks it would be a sign of weakness. (Yes, I’m saying we are all just a bunch of apes with laptops and impressive titles.)

But even putting the psych 101 aside, time constraints and manners encourage this behavior. It feels disruptive to ask a speaker for a definition every 10 seconds.

So, it’s an uphill battle to stop speakers from spewing undefined jargon and encourage listeners to ask for clarification. But it does seem feasible for companies to make glossaries a corporate culture staple. If you’re already printing a stack of handouts for every meeting, why not include a cheat-sheet defining specialized terms, companies, technologies, or people you expect will come up?

It’s a good idea to maintain updated master glossary for each project too, and post it to your project intranet page, if you have one. I’ve seen company-wide glossaries on corporate intranets, which are also great, but they tend to become orphans. Project or team-specific glossaries have a better chance of surviving, in my experience.

I also like to maintain my own personal glossary. When I take meeting notes, I write down any term I don’t fully understand, and scrawl “vocab” next to it in the margin. By the end of every day, I take the time to look up any new terms, and add them to a master glossary I keep on my Backpack page. It’s my own personal “back of the book.” Flash cards optional.

books how-to machines science

Apollo 11 Repair Manual

The celebrated English auto repair publisher Haynes is now offering an “Owner’s Workshop Manual” for Apollo 11’s Saturn V rocket, command module, service module, and lunar module. That’s good nerdery.

Also available, manuals for Baby, Woman, and Man.

[via Geekologie]

bad explanations persuasion science

Explaining Makes You More Persuasive

And research shows even a terrible explanation does the trick.

From Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive:

“Because” makes any explanation rational. In a line to Kinko’s copy machine a researcher asked to jump the line by presenting a reason “Can I jump the line, because I am in a rush?” 94% of people complied. Good reason, right? Okay, let’s change the reason. “Can I jump the line because I need to make copies?” Excuse me? That’s why everybody is in the line to begin with. Yet 93% of people complied. A request without “because” in it (”Can I jump the line, please?”) generated 24% compliance.

data visualizations graphic design infographics interface

50 Great Data Visualizations

Web Designer Depot put together an excellent round-up of online data visualizations — that is, graphical representations of information. From the post:

Wrapping your brain around data online can be challenging, especially when dealing with huge volumes of information. And trying to find related content can also be difficult, depending on what data you’re looking for. But data visualizations can make all of that much easier, allowing you to see the concepts that you’re learning about in a more interesting, and often more useful manner.

I especially like the many examples of visualizations that change in real time to communicate ever-changing data, such as Web traffic.

funny science video

Chemistry Dance Party

Not a lot of actual explanation here, but extra points for style.

[via Neatorama]

charts GOOD infographics

Dozens of GOOD Infographics

GOOD as in GOOD Magazine, that is. They’ve created an impressive Flickr gallery of their “transparencies” from the past year (transparency is GOOD’s preferred term for an informational graphic).

Now, these are like cheesecake. Don’t eat too much in one sitting.

[via Kottke]


1000+ Twittering Explainers

If you’d like to inject more explaining into your Twitter stream, check out Jane Hart’s impressive list of “learning professionals and others” who tweet, complete with summaries.

art cars exploded machines museums

Auto Exploded

In an article for AIGA (“the professional association for design”), auto design expert Phil Patton rounds up several examples of “real life” exploded automotive machinery. I especially like the Harley Davidson Museum’s dismantled motorcycle, which looks intact from the side but seems to disassemble as you walk around it.

(photos from

[via Subtraction]