Corentin Derbré


Turning Numbers into Knowledge – Jonathan Koomey

ISBN: 1938377060
Date read: 2018-05-29
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
(See my list of books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Focusing on numbers and displaying data, but also gives broader advice like Question Authority or Know Your Audience. Chapters are short and to the point, with examples and exercises. A handful tool.

my notes

There is nothing else like this book out there. Nobody who deals with problems where numbers matter—and everybody in today’s world really needs to—should be without it.

For the first time in human history, information is being created at a rate far faster than humans can assess and use it.

“Like this cup”, the master said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” — BRUCE LEE

By its very nature, this process [goal setting] cannot be totally objective or value free. If it involves choices, it involves value judgments. To pretend otherwise is both foolhardy and shortsighted.

One of the most effective coping strategies involves thinking through alternative sce- narios in advance of a particular decision.

The execution process itself can also affect goal setting. For example, the very process of taking action can cause you to realize more precisely what you want.

Most people (especially nonscientists) don’t recognize the large role that intu- ition and instinct play in scientific discovery, particularly in the process of devel- oping hypotheses. A scientist’s desires for recognition and status, enthusiasm for solving a problem, and attitudes towards authority are all motivations rooted in human needs and emotions.

There are two kinds of reasoning accepted in scientific research. The first, based on deductive logic, relies on assumptions and general principles to derive implications and predictions of specific events. The second kind of reasoning–inductive logic, on which many inferences in science and other forms of human endeavors are based–relies on compilations of specific instances to infer general laws from the specifics.

Induction is the link between mathematics, deductive logic, and our experience of the physical world.

Science is predicated on two key attitudes:

Always give more weight to peer-reviewed research than to results announced solely in the media.

Preparation is one of the foundations for success in any field.

Raw intelligence is the ability to think quickly and accurately; useful intelligence is raw intelligence as enhanced by hard work, common sense, instinct, experience, discipline, and organization.

Organization is the single most important factor in creating useful intelli- gence, and it is a learned skill.

No filing system is ever finished. Periodic sorting helps keep your system current and useful.

No toolbox is ever complete because every problem has its own unexpected subtleties; the toolbox that worked for past problems may need to be updated to face new challenges. The learning process never ends.

Each field has its own language. You must at least develop working familiarity with basic concepts in a given field before attempting to decipher a problem.

Talk to people you trust who know something about the topic because they can often point you to the best reference sources and save you time.

An important part of any analyst’s toolbox is the ability to create simple back-of-the-envelope calculations at a moment’s notice, using approximations and memorized data.

There’s a real art to searching for information on the Internet.

Your time is your life, and it is precious. If someone is wasting it, they are stealing it from you, and YOU are allowing that theft.

You must protect your most productive time from interruptions.

If you are feeling unproductive, do something that takes little mental energy or effort but will yield dividends later (like sorting your files, reading mail, or answering phone calls). Even “down time” can be useful if you match the task to your mental energy level. Finally, value other people’s time just like you value your own.

Exercise: Keep a log tracking your time for two or three typical days, writing down the topics you worked on. Record all interruptions as well as the dura- tion of uninterrupted time. Are you making the most of your produc- tive hours? Are you surprised by how many interruptions there are?

“Identify the main conclusion”: Rephrase the main conclusion in your own words, to be sure you understand it.

“Identify the premises”: Rephrase the premises in your own words. List the unstated premises and assumptions.

“Common knowledge” is often wrong, so use care when relying on any measure of acceptability less than a true proof.

Some analysts systematically ignore things that can’t be turned into a number and assume that because these things can’t be measured, they are unimportant. These analysts also generally assume the converse, that things that can be measured must be important.

It is not possible to estimate the true value of a warm summer’s day or a species saved from extinction except in terms that have nothing at all to do with numbers.

Physics envy

It is fashionable today to assume that any figures about the future are better than none.To produce figures about the unknown, the current method is to make a guess about something or other–called an “assumption”–and to derive an estimate from it by subtle calculation. The estimate is then presented as the result of scientific reasoning, something far superior to mere guesswork.This is a pernicious prac- tice that can only lead to the most colossal planning errors, because it offers a bogus answer where, in fact, an entrepreneurial judgment is required. — E.F. SCHUMACHER

How truthful can we expect the expert to be here?

Any source can propagate non-sense. Proceed with caution, and always corroborate what you hear or read with multiple independent sources before taking action.

When little information is available about a particular topic, any moderately credible source gets cited by everyone concerned with the topic and becomes the new conventional wisdom.

Never act solely on information you read in the newspaper, hear on the radio, or learn on the Internet.

Root out the causes of cogni- tive dissonance, and you will enhance your knowledge without fail.

Economists’ views on policy questions cor- respond more closely to their values than to the [facts].

Without knowing the exact solution you can still define the kind of information that would solve the problem at hand.

Any successful problem solver develops tricks for “getting unstuck” in the face of such obstacles. One of my most successful tricks is to break my normal routine. A time-tested technique for breaking logjams is to describe the problem to someone else.

Any time an important business niche appears, competitors almost always pop up to contest it.

Scenarios are successful when “they are both plausible and surprising; when they have the power to break old stereotypes; and when the makers assume ownership of them and put them to work.”

There are some models, especially some science and engineering models, that are large or complex because they need to be. But many more are large or complex because their authors gave too little thought to why and how they were being built and how they would be used.

The desire for quantification can go too far.

If forecasts are part of your planning process, don’t create just one. Instead, use a set of forecasts (i.e., scenarios) to explore the future.

In both talks and papers, your audience will only retain a few key points from your work. You must decide what those few points should be, and hammer them home.

Keep a notebook for each major project.

The passive voice is the tool of people who want to avoid responsibility for their actions.

Make sure that any intelligent person (including YOU!) can reproduce your analysis from the footnotes. With this one simple step, you will vault above 95% of the world’s analysts.

Don’t just write to be understood; write so that you cannot be misunderstood. — ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

I normally use the following main headings in technical reports (your specific needs may dictate a slightly different structure):

Choose the means to communicate your messages most effectively.

Tufte defines graphical excellence as “that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.”

When things get really bad, a graph may contain only one data point.

Tufte recommends using the font used in telephone books (Bell Centennial) whenever you have tables that have high information density because the phone companies have researched this topic exten- sively, and there’s no point in reinventing the wheel.

A successful speaker always thinks carefully about the following questions:

When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong. — BUCKMINSTER FULLER


© 2018 Corentin Derbré.