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Saturday, April 14, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

As I reported yesterday, part of Weston High School’s Earth Day observances was a screening of An Inconvenient Truth. This event was attended by everyone — students and teachers alike. (Almost everyone, actually. A few kids skipped out, and some stayed home.) By and large I was quite impressed with the students’ attentiveness; the usual teenage cynicism and restlessness didn’t keep them from watching quietly, even when Al Gore was being especially geeky. Not that there’s anything wrong with being geeky. The audience’s attention flagged only after the film was over, when they had to sit through a brief slide show that presented statistics from a survey of ways in which students do or don’t protect the environment.

Anyhow, I found An Inconvenient Truth an extremely compelling documentary, both as a film and as a piece of educational propaganda. Duarte Design’s visual representations of statistics were especially well done, being crisp, vivid, and devoid of chart clutter. Edward Tufte was probably pleased — relatively speaking, since Tufte makes compelling arguments against PowerPoint that carry over in part to Keynote, which is what Gore uses. But, for the techies among my readers, here are some observations about Keynote from designer Ted Boda:
Al Gore’s presentation was in fact using Apple’s Keynote presentation software (the same software Steve Jobs presents from) and did so for a number of reasons. As a designer for the presentation Keynote was the first choice to help create such an engaging presentation.

Apple’s Keynote anti-aliases its fonts and graphics, scales vector objects and supports QuickTime videos easily and without any plug-ins. Duarte used a combination of Keynote’s graphics and graph tools, Illustrator, Photoshop, AfterEffects (for more complex animations) and dropped in numerous videos from different sources to complete his presentation. Some of the videos dropped were up to 1920x1080 (HD), they played and scaled extremely well and was something our team could not even begin to think about doing in PowerPoint.
Thousands of people have commented on the effectiveness and importance of Gore’s message about climate change and the environment, so I want to focus on the presentation of statistics. As a math teacher, I am always interested in multiple representations of mathematical objections — equations, functions, statistics, or whatever — and I am always interested in excellent teaching. Gore has some lessons to teach us here. I can do no better than to quote Garr Reynolds:
Three things stand out about Al Gore’s presentation:

(1) He looks relaxed, like he’s in his realm. It’s a serious issue, and he is serious, yet he’s a pleasure to watch and listen to. Where was this guy in 2000 indeed.

(2) The technology is transparent to the audience, as it should be. He’s got to be the only 50-something politician (former politician?) who can actually use slideware without stinking up the place.

(3) His slide images are photographic imagery of high quality. The design of the visuals are powerful yet complementary and subordinate to Gore and his message (though in many ways, the visuals are the message in this instance; certainly the visuals are crucial to his case).

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