How to communicate information—lessons from Edward Tufte’s 1-day workshop

Last Friday, I attended a workshop by Edward Tufte, a master of data visualization, in Denver. Here’s what I learned.

On showing only information; no junk: 

In a completely dark room inside the Hyatt hotel, Tufte started the workshop by showing a beautiful animation by the “Music Animation Machine“, a website created by Stephen Malinowski. Below is an animated example of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. In Tufte’s words: “there is no chart junk here”, i.e. everything you see is pure information that contributes to your understanding.

On effective writing:

If you want to have examples of effective information communication, look at sites that receive many viewers, such as New York Times or ESPN. What you’ll learn from them:

  • Always mention your sources
  • Include quotes from external experts
  • If you want to communicate just a few numbers, integrate them into your text; do not create “data junk”, i.e. small tables or bar charts to communicate just a few numbers
  • Create beautiful templates to communicate complex data, such as NYT’s visualization of Obama’s 2013 budget proposal

On better meetings:

Start each meeting by giving all participants a written briefing. Do not brief people by giving a presentation. We can process information more quickly through reading than speaking. (Also: don’t send the written document out in advance expecting meeting participants to read it. Create time in the meeting for people to read your information.) Jeff Bezos uses 6-page memos and 30 minutes of silent reading for all important meetings at Amazon.

So, when you next visit your doctor, do not tell them what’s the matter—write down your complaints in stead. When you finally get to meet with the doctor, give him your printed out complaints, and ask him to silently read it.

On combining words, drawings, and images:

We can process all kinds of information together. Our mind does not filter “words” from “images”. The reason we have text editors for words and Photoshop for images and Illustrator for drawings is that it’s easier for the software makers and possibly the creator, but definitely not for the reader.

7 Paths For Guaranteed Misery in Life

You can not tell people how to be happy, but you can tell them how they will become miserable. If we avoid paths to misery, we increase our chances of a happy life. “I wish I knew where I was going to die, and then I’d never go there.”

Below are 7 paths for guaranteed misery in life, from Charles Munger’s 1986 Harvard Commencement speech, from the book “Seeking Wisdom” by Peter Bevelin. What surefire paths to misery would you add?

 #1 Ingest chemicals in an effort to alter mood or perception

 #2 Envy

 #3 Resentment

 #4 Be unreliable

 #5 Learn only from your personal experience

Avoiding to learn from the mistakes of others will surely bring you to misery.

How little originality is there in the common disasters of mankind – drunk driving deaths, […] conversion of bright college students into brainwashed zombies as members of destructive cults. […] “If at first you don’t succeed, well, so much for hang gliding.”

 #6 Stay down when life knocks you to the floor

There is so much adversity out there, even for the lucky and wise, that [staying down when life gets tough] will be permanently mired in misery.

 #7 Do not think backward

Approach the study of happiness by studying how not to be happy, in other words:

Approach “How to be X?”

By asking “How not to be X?”

This video is part of Charlie Munger’s commencement speech at USC. Find the transcript of the speech here

How to make the most of SET?

Two days ago I had the pleasure to speak to 150 new students of the masters I started 3 years ago (Sustainable Energy Technologies in Delft). This post contains tips & tricks of former SET-students reflecting on their experience. Thanks to Bert van Dorp, Ewoud de Kok, Diego Acevedo, Manuel Vargas Evans and Gaurav Durasamy for their contributions. 

1. Ask yourself: who do you want to become? Do you want to invent a new photovoltaic panel or help your government build a wind turbine park? You have much freedom to choose. Create the experience that lines you up for success after you finish in Delft.

If you do not know who you want to become, ask yourself: Which possible scenarios do I see for myself? Many students wrote this down on their slips of paper. Test different scenarios by joining side-projects or doing research with a professor in your evening hours.

2. Explore courses offered outside SET. Delft has much to offer at different faculties. Are you interested in water desalination? Approach a professor at civil engineering. Do you want to learn about electric vehicles? Speak to researchers at 3ME (Mechanical, Materials and Marine engineering). Look at the curricula of the energy masters in Delft and all masters in Delft.

3. Work with professors who inspire you. Find the professors whose research fascinates you and who you admire as human beings. A good way to start is to print the Energy Initiative’s list of professors and look at all their personal research pages. Make appointments with those professors who you find interesting. Write a reflection after each meeting, and see which meetings make you excited for future collaboration.

4. Sign up for email lists. You want to be at the center of information flows. Start with The (Delft) Energy Club, MIT Energy Club and MIT Energy Initiative. Through these lists you will learn about events, interesting people, books and competitions to take part in. Also take a look at YES!Delft students. You want to set up an environment in which information flows to you.

5. Build friendships with students from different backgrounds. The easy path is to connect with people who speak your language and eat your food. Don’t limit yourself – you will miss out on learning the stories and insights from many of the cool people in this room!

Back Camera

6. Work on side projects. The best way to learn is by doing. Participate in the Solar Decathlon, the Nuon Solar team or one of the many projects The Energy Club offers. Or: start your own team. Diego Acevedo joined the BlueRise team during SET, now a steady source for Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) projects.

7. Look for internships that make you uncomfortable. Just like side-projects, internships are a great way to learn. You will understand what skills you need to build a solar panel or change the heating and cooling controls, in stead of theorizing about these skills in a classroom. Find companies that inspire you; go after them. Resist the temptation to do an internship within the TUDelft.

8. Go abroad. Travel to international energy conferences. Consider the ATHENS program, the Cleantech Forums; ARPA-e and the Renewable Energy World Conference. You can pull the student card: this often means free or cheap access. If that does not work, find a newspaper to write for (start with Delta or a newspaper from your country) and apply for free conference-tickets as press. A third option is to offer your help as a volunteer. If you

Do you want to study in a different country? Hunt for the opportunity! It will take dedication and effort to study abroad. Approach professors at different universities directly (attach your previous research papers) or ask professors in Delft whether they have connections at other universities.

9. For thesis: find a research group that works together closely. Big ideas do not form in a vacuum (this book tells the story of Bell Labs, one of the most innovative research centers of all times). Sitting in a small room for 6 months will unlikely yield novel technology ideas. In successful research groups, PhD’s, post-docs and master students have lunch together and share their findings on a weekly basis. Look for groups where it is normal to walk into the office of your colleagues every day to ask them questions. To learn whether the research group you are interested in works this way, sit in their office for a week!

10. Do you want to prototype a big idea? Ask the university for support. Do not hesitate to approach the dean and other faculty members for (financial) support: they want to help you, and typically do not know what’s going on inside the classrooms. Delft Energy Initiative supports student projects with funding to build a prototype.

11. Participate in challenges and competitions. This is the best way to make your side-project fly. Look at the Cleantech Challenge, the Cleantech Open and  the Sustainability Challenge.

12. Join a startup. YES!Delft has lots of startups. If you feel entrepreneurship is your thing, just go there and join one! The atmosphere is fantastic.

13. Build long-lasting relationships with fellow students, professors and partners. Being a student gives you the opportunity to build relationships with other students, with the people you work with on projects and with the people in your research group. Make sure the relationships are long-lasting: who knows what you will be doing when you graduate?

When you leave Delft – for work abroad or for good – do not hesitate to send updates to your friends from SET. Send an email once every 3 or 6 months with the questions you’ve thought about; the way your life has changed; and  ideas you would like to work on.

Final advice: be proactive. This is so important that we have to repeat it. SET is a broad program, flexible enough to suit your own specific needs. Do not feel comfortable with “just the coursework”. Shape your agenda in your own way. If you need advice, contact fellow students and alumni.

The upside of adversity in life

Last Wednesday at Unreasonable Institute’s final presentations, Roberto Carlos Rivera shared a deeply personal story. As a child, Roberto was involved in gang fights; he created hip-hop songs; and he had been kicked out of school – twice – because he stirred up emotions in his classmates. 

Now, years later, Roberto is nominated a Top Young Change Agent. Roberto was selected as an Unreasonable Fellow and leads The Good Life Organization. In his own words: “I went from a dope-dealer to a hope-dealer”.  

Listening to Roberto, a thought came to me: challenging moments in life are necessary opportunities to become a great person.


Looking at close friends and distant heroes, every single person I see as a leader has overcome big challenges in their life. I have friends who recovered from life-threatening accidents or convinced hundreds of people to join a cause before officially being a teenager. Gandhi was able to develop satyagraha because of his inhumane experience in South Africa; Jay-Z developed incredible perseverance because of his tough youth in the Bronx. 

This idea – that life challenges are necessary to develop character – triggers two observations. First, shielding children from pain may not be the best way to raise happy, fulfilled human beings. Brene Brown echoes this in an On Being podcast (mins 31:30-35:00). According to Brene Brown, American parents can be overprotective, a missed opportunity for their children to build character. “Hope is a function of struggle”, Brene Brown says, “I see students who have never experienced real adversity. How that shows up is hopelessness”.

Second, when children with seemingly dark futures ahead of them can break out of destructive patterns there is great hope for them. The struggle for life has given them the opportunity to build real character. These kids have the rough material to become diamonds. 


Have you experienced adversity in your youth? Which were the moments that define you as you are? Do you know great leaders who have not struggled with adversity? 

A quest for learning – summer 2013

This summer, I embark on an epic quest. With 8 students from MIT and UC Berkeley, I’m cycling 4,000 miles from San Francisco to Washington. Along our journey, we will teach hands-on science classes to a total of 1,000 high-school students on topics we deeply care about, organized as “Learning Festivals”.

Classes range from “How to build a heliostat solar panel?” to “How does the brain work?”. Each Learning Festival will end with a session in which we invite students to work on their own ideas. The goal of our journey is to let children experience the joy of learning and the power of turning ideas into reality.


For email updates of the highlights of our journey (2x per month), please leave your information here. I keep another blog during the summer, please find it here. 

A demo class in Amsterdam

A demo class in Amsterdam

How can you help? 

Thank you for taking the effort of reading this page! There are several ways in which you can help:

(1) We are looking for teaching locations across the country (see the map below). Are you in touch with school teachers, librarians or summer camp leaders along our route? Please introduce us, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

(2) We will be camping all the way. Do you have friends who live along the path, who are happy to host 8 students for a meal or a night? Please introduce us, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

(3) This journey will lead into a structural organization to support children in developing their own ideas beyond summer. Do you want to work on or fund the future of hands-on learning? Definitely reach out, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!


Along our journey, we are supported by a large team of web designers, educators and funders. During our trip, we will be 8: 6 MIT students, 1 UC Berkeley student and myself .

Our team of 8

Our team of 8


1. COMPUTERS, ART:  The algorithmic beauty of plants

Do you like computers, plants, or art? How about the intersection of all three? In this course, we explore the recursive structure of plants and learn how to make pretty pictures of trees, flowers, and abstract fractal-like patterns using a clever technique called L-systems. Everyone will have a chance to create their own computer-generated works of art inspired by life.

2. NEUROSCIENCE, GAMES:  EyeWire: a game to map the brain

EyeWire is a puzzle-meets-coloring book online game that enables its players to contribute to the brain mapping initiative, which was announced by President Obama in March. Developed in part by one of the Spokes teachers in the Seung Lab at MIT, the game teaches its players how to trace the “branches” of neurons through 3D reconstructions of brain tissue. To do this task, players “spot check” computer algorithms, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a connectivity map with synaptic-scale resolution of the “connectome.”

3. ENERGY, CONTROL SYSTEMS:  Build your own solar panel heliostat

Through assembling their own solar panel heliostat, students will gain insight into the fundamental working or energy from renewables. This class combines knowledge in mechanical engineering (designing a technical system), computer science (programming an arduino) and electrical engineering (soldering the board).

4. FOOD, GARDENING:  How to grow your own vegetables: inside, for free!

Don’t you wish you know how to make your own delicious food? With a few old plastic gutters, a handful of plant seeds and a bit of daily care, you will grow your own veggies in no-time! Add in a few quick and easy recipes, and you will be the most popular chef in your high school – period.

5. MUSIC, PHYSICS:  The Science of Music

Music has been called the universal language. In some sense its building blocks of rhythm, harmony, and melody arise from the nature of the human mind. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions! Come learn about the math, physics, and psychology behind the music we love and how to take a scientific approach to solving its mysteries.


Our route from San Francisco to DC

Our route from San Francisco to DC



My class

The class I will teach is called: “Grow your own vegetables – the joy of making what you’re eating”. I have created an entire outline of my class (using pictures, very few words) here.

See you in DC!

See you in DC!

Elementary School is more than 1,2,3 – The Importance of Character Development in Early Years

Can you remember an experience in your elementary or high school years that truly shaped your character?

For me, playing field hockey was a key opportunity to build my character. I was not the most skilled of athletes – far from it, in fact. As is relatively common in the Netherlands, I played field hockey. Starting at age 9, the first years of hockey offered little competition. As I grew older, kids were started to be separated into different teams. From that moment onwards, there was a (very) strong incentive to perform. I remember that often when I started the training, I committed to put in twice as much effort as the other players, just to compensate for my skill.

It was a perfect opportunity to build my character at an early age. Most of us can think of several experiences in early adulthood that taught us certain values, but very few have had the opportunity to have such experiences at an earlier age – right when they are fundamentally important.

I strongly believe that elementary schools and high schools should go beyond teaching cognitive skills – reading, writing, mathematics – and start building character. Why? Because research shows that what distinguishes “successful” students later in life is not a difference in cognitive skill at an early age, but a difference in character.

Besides sports, starting and running Projects is a perfect opportunity for learning. That is why I think every child aged 11-12 (the final two years of high-school in most European countries) should have a compulsory project as part of his or her education. The success of such project education heavily depends on the skill of the teacher and the support of parents, other kids and partners. Inherently, project education seems unscalable, because it depends on the quality of people.

My question to you: How can a “project education” module be designed for scalability?

KIPP School in the Bronx

Knowledge is Power Program

Education For The Future

I believe education can be a fundamental solution to many of the grand challenges humanity faces today. Poverty, disease, malnourishment and climate change – these are all problems that can best be solved by educating people about the problem and training them to find and execute solutions. But education needs to change completely from what it is today.

Luckily, many bright minds are working on new ways of bringing education to people. Online lectures, gamification and peer-to-peer tutoring are great examples of new forms of learning; they are becoming more commonly applied in classrooms around the world. But not only is it important to transform how we learn, what we learn should be changed dramatically also.

I find it fascinating to think about the skills that will make a difference in the future. Much inspired by books like Daniel Pink’s A whole new mind, below is the list of the skills I want to develop further — because I think they are critical to flourish in project world.

Build and lead teams. Practice the act of convincing people to support you. Only when one learns to adopt the perspective of others can you be truly influential.

Solve complex problems. In the real world, unlike in most courses, there is no set of guidelines available. You need to invent the roadmap yourself.

Develop big ideas. To make a profound change in the world, we need to work on big dreams and audacious projects. It is too easy to adopt the opinion of others, instead try to go deep and really question beliefs and knowledge. This requires to go deeper than most into the matter, and zoom out further to place things into context.

Improvise and play. Learn how to make things up on the spot and to give project a human edge.

Tell stories. In the flat world, storytellers triumph. This is true for the ventures we start but also for our personal lives. Human beings crave stories – and we love to help and spend time with people who are good at telling them.

Tinker and prototype. It is critical to be able to transform ideas into action. This may concern building a robot or writing a book – it is about the mindset of building things which are not yet perfect.

Identify and surf trends. By seeing ahead and identifying technological and social shifts, we can increase the chances to be “at the right place at the right time”.

Try things and take action. Start things that never were. The only way to be successful is to try a lot of things that might fail. Small failures are soon forgotten, large victories are not.

The list above is non exhaustive and non perfect. Please share the skills you find significant by email [] or at the bottom of this post. Thank you!

What makes MIT such a great school?

So far, I have had a blast during my time here in Boston. I have never had such a smooth landing upon moving to another country. MIT and the surrounding Cambridge area compose a truly wonderful place to live – and a stimulating environment to work in. But why is it that MIT is such a breeding ground for new ideas, projects and companies? Below some of my thoughts, triggered by a conversation with my thesis supervisor, prof. Richard de Neufville.

  • An open and flat culture

Whether you’re a freshman or a faculty-director, anybody can approach everybody at MIT for a serious discussion. People are not judged on their seniority, but on their true merit (ideas, discipline and skills). Upon entering a conversation, more senior MIT faculty will assume you have seriously thought about what you’re proposing, even if you’ve just entered MIT a week ago.

This leads to a healthy knowledge exchange system, where feedback and improvement suggestions are valued irrespective of their source and innovative ideas are celebrated.

  • Students are trained to become “builders”

At my home university, TUDelft, most students are expected to spend 5 years — most often more —  analyzing complex problems. Designing and building practical solutions is something few students outside the Industrial Design & Architecture faculties find the opportunity to do. “Practical work” — the idea of a Polytechnic school — is something European engineering schools look down upon, and I believe this is a fundamentally flawed perspective considering the needs of society.

At MIT, students are expected to be able to build things with their hands. In the past two weeks, I’ve met MIT students who’ve built biodiesel production units; engineered dress shirts or created energy generating shock absorbers. I have made friends with people who developed software applications to teach children how to read; built electric vehicles half the size of a Smart for use in future cities and girls who’ve manually constructed their own computers.

Of course, within MIT there are some faculties which are particularly good at fostering development 0f these skills (such as the D-lab and the Medialab), but the “builder” characteristic is something I’ve observed in the majority of undergraduates and masters students at MIT. By creating a culture of “let’s prototype a solution, and see how it works”, students are ready to tackle real-world solutions when they graduate and they leave with the healthy framework of rapid prototyping.

  • Large autonomy over research and work

Related to the open culture, is the autonomy of professors, post-docs and others to research what fascinates them. Rather than having a top-down structure that subscribes people what to look into, there is a freedom of choice.

Because the quality of the people at MIT is superb, this leads to a very interesting set of research areas. At the MIT Medialab for example, approximately 30 research groups have come into existence, with names as Lifelong Kindergarten, Tangible Media and Viral Spaces.

Since arriving at MIT, this has given me the fundamental feeling that whereas most engineering schools look at the problems of the present, MIT’s research focuses on the problems of the future: looking a decade — or significantly longer — into the future of society.

  • Triggers to develop interests widely (and wildly)

In the American undergraduate system, engineering students spend the first year-and-a-half taking a diverse set of courses, ranging from physics and math to humanities and biology. Only after immersing themselves in a large set of courses, are students required to choose a major for the remaining two-and-a-half years – and during that time they are still expected to continue exploring their interests in all directions.

So far, these MIT-characteristics have given me the feeling that the engineers who graduate here are ready to bring improvement to the world, and that they leave their Institute with a well-founded background and a toolbox filled with useful skills. I am sure the aspects discussed above are not exhaustive, so please add your personal views below.