01 June 2013

[design] Dept Of War Math - Propaganda for Geniuses

So there's a trending topic these days (that I hope does more than trend), and its name is survivorship bias. You'll all want to write that down, because it'll become a serious bit of discussion in the months to come … or should. If it doesn't, that'll be unjust, and I think I'll be coming back to it here.

Surviviorship bias. Learn about it, courtesy of David McRaney, at the blog You Are Not So Smart.

But it started me on this road, a great riff on a classic style. And it has to do with the wartime Department of War Math.

War Math?

A little-known, unsung department that helped us carry the great World War II?

Well, yes … and no. It's like this:

During the war, math and science played a very large role, of course, and a role that extended into things like the post-war Race for Space and the very large role also that scientists played in giving us the shiny technological world to follow.

But during the early 1940s the USA was running up against problems requiring extensive mathematical modeling … and the computers that could do that modeling didn't really exist yet. The most powerful number-crunchers of the time, as the article says, ran on toast and coffee.

There was a time that 'calculator' was a human job title, do take note.

The Applied Mathematics Panel, made up of groups of human mainframes ensconced in various spaces hither and yon, was, or should have been, our Department of War Math. Commanders in the field brought them problems, and they solved them. Pretty much just like that. They came up with a way to figure out how to best fire torpedoes based solely the ripple pattern left behind by a ship … if it turns, you see, the ripples are different in a way, and if they're cruising evasively, you can't predict which way they're going to turn, but if you analyze the waves, you didn't have to.

Actually, they were kind of Mentats, really.

McRaney's article on survivorship bias goes into great detail about how these amazing people would not only use their technical knowledge but superior analytical and logical minds to finesse the unobvious but crucial details out of any situation. He went to Dave Clark, of the video and animation design studio Plus3, who brought the notional Department of War Math to virtual life, with pitch-perfect propaganda graphics. This one is my favorite:

Illustration by Brad Clark of Plus3. Used with permission.

The heroic math geek spirits the downed Allied pilot away from the crashed plane. "Carry the one?" Indeed. Containing clever wordplay with a multiple meaning, pitched with just the right patriotic enthusiasm - and a deft eye for the war-poster style, we have a completely convincing poster for a war department that wasn't - but it should have been.

This next one is a rather darker, but none the less on-target:

Illustration by Brad Clark of Plus3. Used with permission.

That Nazi swastika never saw it coming. With a palette that reminds me of those sinister, silhouetted "Hun comin' to get ya" posters, the heroes work unseen in the background, Mentating an Allied victory for sure. That compass means business, man! And again the adroit multiple-meaning word play; We're counting on you goes more than one direction, when it comes to the math the sharp pencil brains at the Dept of War Math did.

If I were them, I'd be selling posters of this. Great satire like this comes along so infrequently.

Plus3 Video is at http://plus3video.com.

Again, these illustrations used are by Brad Clark, to whom I express grateful thanks.

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