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I wish Napoleon Bonaparte had never been born

Not just for all the usual good reasons why the world needs fewer mass murderers, but also for the very specific reason that, had there been no Napoleon, there’d be no Napoleon-in-Russia graph, then no shining example for Ed Tufte to illustrate how people should make their graphs, then maybe graph-makers wouldn’t all feel that their graphs have to be Napoleon-in-Russia-style masterpieces.

All this is preamble to this email I received the other day from Stuart Buck, subject line “Bad chart”:

Not clear how you’re supposed to glean information from this chart except that there are a bunch of lines that move upwards.

Here’s the chart he’s talking about:


Maybe we call this a grasshopper plot?


  1. Hey, I like the Napoleon-in-Russia graph!

    • Andrew says:


      I like the Napoleon-in-Russia graph too. What I don’t like is that it’s led people to suppose that it’s generally a good idea to convey a complex multidimensional story in a single plot. Also it has a sort of cleverness that works well for its example but doesn’t work so well in other settings.

      • Krzysztof Sakrjeda says:

        That (cleverness) was my initial reaction to reading Tufte and it’s a really good reminder that a nice set of simple figures can do much better than some monolithic masterpiece. I actually like the Napoleon in Russia figure because I see it as a set of simple plots. Maybe the cleverness problem is that integration takes more work than people appreciate and if you don’t have the time to integrate you should stick to a set of simple plots.

    • Corey says:

      If I understand correctly, AG is saying that the problem with the Napoleon-in-Russia graph isn’t how it presents information (which is good) but rather how it inspires graphmakers whose ambitions exceed their ability.

      • Curious says:

        I think you are missing the point.

      • Andrew says:


        It’s not just ambitions exceeding ability. I think lots of data stories are just better told in multiple graphs. Someone could be the greatest designer in the world but it doesn’t mean that they can best display a set of information in a single plot.

        • John Mashey says:

          I think Andrew’s point needs refining.
          i’d put this another way:

          1) Study all of Tufte’s books.

          2) Note that numerous good (and bad) examples are given, and it is quite clear Tufte would never advise making everything look like Napoleon. At least one of the books talks about use of multiple small charts, very useful.

          I’m sure Andrew knows all this … But couldn’t resist the title.

          Anyway, i’d claim the problem is not in admiring the graph, but in ignoring everything else.

  2. Steen says:

    I think we need ‘War and peace’ crossover fan fiction where Andrew travels back in time to prevent Napolean’s birth, prevent the march into Russia, etc., but is thwarted at every step by sinister fellow time traveler Edward Tuftinator. Time travel raises novel ‘garden of forking paths’ possibilities.

  3. Phil says:

    As far as mass murderers go, Napoleon never struck me as any worse as any other great military leader in history. He certainly wasn’t the kind of psychopath who implemented genocidal policies like a Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Zedong. It’s also worth mentioning that he only declared war for 2 of the 9 wars that Napoleon was involved as France’s leader. Also fair to mention that he has left a huge legacy on France’s legal and administrative framework with the Napoleonic Code.

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