Monday, April 9, 2012

On why I hate LaTeX/Beamer

Continuing with a last's year post, I make a case in point about how using LaTeX/Beamer is bad for scientific presentations.  

Last year I wrote about LaTeX/Beamer and how it was worse than bad PowerPoint. One or two weeks ago I found a presentation on Slideshare done in Beamer, by people I know. They are excellent scientists at Germany's best research center. It is partly not their fault, they are applied mathematicians, and in mathematics LaTeX and, to a lesser degree Beamer,  are industry standards.
The problem of using Beamer for scientific talks is that it employs the same narrative of a written essay: Title, introduction, first section, second subsection, conclusion. Another problem is that Beamer enforces the use of off-the-shelf templates, and the command-line nature of Beamer makes its customization very time consuming. The use of predefined templates one of the causes of  the death by PowerPoint. The creation of a math talk using Beamer is a soporific bomb.
To show what I mean, I extracted the layout of 4 slides of the presentation I found on Slideshare. I know that designing engaging visuals for the mathematical sciences is difficult. Not only is math hard to visualize, but the use of equations and mathematical symbols (which is a just) can easily obscure a talk's slides. 
First, the title slide:

Problem 1. As I mentioned on my last post, the visual follows the old paradigm of writing the name, place, and date of the conference. I get that presenters want to write this information for the people that will see their slides after their talk. If that's the intent, one could also write this information on the link that downloads the visuals, or in a description field or presenter's notes field, if provided. If none of the above is possible,  another option is to create a text file with this information and pack these two files in a zip.
Problem 2. Another problem here is that the name of the authors and their affiliation is written twice (what for?), one in the title part and one on the bottom left and bottom center-right as part of the "status bar".
Problem 3. No sense of design. The big dot and the little white square are the institution's logos, observe how they completely disconnected. The text on the top containing the name, place and date of the conference is floating. All in all, the objects are randomly thrown into the page, with no hierarchy, alignment or proximity.
Now let's go into the content:

Problem 1. This is their second slide and the "navigation bar" makes its first appearance.  This bar contains the sections of the talk and marks its progress. This is not the way of helping orientating people back to your talk, it is a way of torture them if a talk is bad and feel endless. This bar is useless table of content and is one of the things that make Beamer worse than PowerPoint. It uncovers that Beamer is spawned out of a linear, essay-like narrative.
Problem 2. Not only the top and bottom bars are distracting, there is a second top bar with the title of the slide, and to the very right, the dot is (again) their logo.  All of this courtesy of a template...
Problem 3. Beamer offers a "boxes" that are supposed to create focus by containing important information. Well if this is so, why let the important information compete with the item on the bottom?
Next, the monster slide:

This slide shows a math theorem...just no. Don't do it like this, please. In case you have  to show a theorem,  read chapter 10, "Writing a talk" of Handbook of Writing for the Mathematical Sciences, second edition, by Nicholas Higham.  Be aware that this slide is not Beamer fault, but the author's.
I'll finish with their last conclusions and thank-you-for-your-attention slide:

This bullet-point slide is, sadly, the bread and butter of today's scientific presentations. We are still a long way to create visuals that have the same quality standard of our research and writing communication. Unfortunately Beamer doesn't help us to improve our slides, quite the opposite, as  we have seen.

So that's why I hate Beamer, because it doesn't foster creativity,  forces to think inside-the-box, and ultimately I can only do visuals of the past. But, if you think there is no other way to make visuals for a math talk, click here, it might help you get some inspiration.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A good title visual makes a good first impression

A good title slide helps you and your audience. In this post I give an example of how to build such title slide using Gimp. 

After you have worked on the content of your talk, practiced it and got feedback, you might want to go for a great title slide. This slide helps the audience anticipate what kind of talk they will be listening to. The title of the talk, its author(s), and its(their) affiliation(s) are more than enough. Think about it, your audience how the name and date of the conference they are attending, why would you want to remind them about it? For me, the title of the talk is enough. Restraining to that amount of information helps to work on a great visual.

So here is an example. The image below is from Wikipedia's Picture Of The Day (POTD) collection.
Wikipedia's POTD January 1, 2012
Based on this awesome image I create this title slide.
Let me walk you through how I got from this POTD to this title slide.  First, download the image in its full resolution. Working with images in full resolution will allow you to remain in full page mode in case you have to crop the image. Down-scaling an image always gives a good result, whereas up-scaling is not a good practice.  Once you have the image on your hard drive, the main steps to get this result are enhance contrast, draw a grid and apply a vignette.
Step 1. Enhance contrast. To enhance the contrast I made a copy of the original image and turned it black-and-white and change the blend mode to "overlay" and reduce its opacity. 
  1. On Gimp, duplicate the original image by pressing Shift+Ctrl+D. 
  2. Click on the Color menu. Choose Desaturate. 
  3. Pick the Lightness mode. 
  4. In case the layers dialog is not visible open it by pressing Ctrl+L and click on the Mode drop-down menu and set the opacity to approximately 25 or choose the value you find most appropriate. 
Step 2.  Draw the grid. The grid is the visual element that relates to the computer simulation. It gives a high tech look to the slide.
  1. Open a new slide by press Shift+Ctrl+N and set it to Transparency.
  2. Go to the Filters menu → Render → Pattern → Grid

3. Click on the color bar underneath Horizontal and with pick a white color from the image using
the color picker. I chose 3ffdff.
4.  Set the spacing to 64, the width to 1, the offset to 0, and click on OK.
5.  Repeat step 4 but set the spacing to 256 and the width to 2. Your image should like this.

6.   I think the grid is too strong and I want to make some of it transparent.  For that select the Lasso tool by press F and making a selection around the area of interest.

7. Feather the selection by clicking on the Selection menu  → Feather. Apply a high number like 200. You won't notice the feathering.

8.  Invert the selection by pressing Ctrl+I.

9.  We want to make this selection transparent. By the way, the feathering will give the image a nice smooth fading out of the grid. To make the selection transparent, apply a layer mask give go to the Layer menu → Mask → Add Layer Mask and accept.

10.  Make sure that the foreground color is black.  That is, make sure that the toolbox is visible (Ctrl+B if not) and press D.

11.  Get the Fill/Bucket tool (Shift+B), make sure the "Fill Whole Selection" in the tool's dialog and click on the selection. You should get a layer mask looking something like this:

To see the layer mask go to Layer menu → Mask → Show Layer Mask. The complete white zone will be 100% visible, the 100% black completely transparent and the grey zone semitransparent. You created the grey zone  using the feathering... If you made the layer mask visible, make invisible again to continue working.
12.  We are almost there. If the grid is too dominant, reduce the grid's layer opacity (see the screenshot above). Now your image should look like is:

If you are satisfied with the result or if you are running out of energy or time. You can skip the next step.

Step 3. Vignetting. In this step I go a bit faster as all of the keyboard combinations are given in steps 1 and 2.
  1. Make a new transparent layer.
  2. With the lasso tool make a selection that is inside the selection of step 2. The idea here is that the grid will be smoothly darkened. 
  3. Feather the selection by 100 pixels. 
  4. Invert the selection.
  5. Fill the selection with black.
  6. Set the layer's Mode to Multiply and opacity to  approximately 35. At full opacity, the vignette only looks like is:

After all of this, this is my result:

That's the visual. Now you can create the slide in Gimp or your slideware of preference. Here are a couple of hints to get the image into that great first slide:
  • Scale the image to match the width of your other slides.  I wrote about up-scaling images here, but the process to down-scale is the same. That the benefit of working with full resolution images. 
  • Move the image to the top of the slide and match the rest of the slides background using the grey at the button of the image. Click here to see how.
  • If you can, choose a font that as straight lines as 90° angle. I used (again) Rockwell.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Selected slides from An inconvenient truth in slideshare

An inconvenient truth is a documentary film about Al Gore's climate change presentation. I just found out that some of his presentation slides are posted in slideshare. No,  Mr. Gore did not design the slides and presentation all by himself. Duarte Design helped him. I strongly recommend, that you check  out the slides. They are very good example of great visuals, and they can even be downloaded, though as a Apple Keynote file.