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People who are unhappy with the progress of the military actions in Iran and Afghanistan finally have something to blame: PowerPoint.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said in an article in the New York Times this week.

The article went on to describe how the software "is deeply embedded in a military culture that has come to rely on PowerPoint’s hierarchical ordering of a confused world."

Articles in military journals on the same subject appeared in 2009: One in Small Wars Journal and another -- which actually spawned the previous one -- in Armed Forces Journal.

"PowerPoint can be highly effective if used purely to convey information — as in a classroom or general background brief," noted the AFJ article. "It is particularly good if strong pictures or charts accompany the discussion of the material. But it is poorly suited to be an effective decision aid."

Criticisms of the software include both oversimplification and including too much information, taking too much time, and reducing everything to a series of disconnected bullet points, with no explanation. (One of the canonical PowerPoint spoofs shows what would have happened had Lincoln done the Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint.)

The blogosphere, however, was quick to jump on the article. In one case, criticism focused on the author, Elizabeth Bumiller, for things such as refusing to cite design expert Edward Tufte -- a particularly odd omission, since he was cited in the Small Wars Journal article. Tufte has actually written his own essay on PowerPoint, though it is not freely available. "She didn't do a single thing to verify beyond an article or two, which she didn't do more than mention, that there really was a problem," noted the article. "She simply told us what the Big Guys think, and that's all."

Bringing the discussion full circle, Military.com ran a critique of the article, based on interviews with other military personnel. "Powerpoint as a briefing tool has the same challenges as any other used to pass information – the skill of the user, the aptitude/interest of the recipient, and the forum within which it is used," said Dakota Wood, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, DC.

One aspect of the New York Times story rang very true. "Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters."

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