Playful Visualizations at Work, Working Visualizations at Play

Archive for June, 2012

(Still) going with the flow…

Last week, I posted a “quilt” of sorts, made by digitally stitching together images of both the English and Spanish History flow results for “José Agustín.”   The inspiration for that visualization was two-part: 1) an opportunity to play around with the History Flow tool more (which I have mentioned before and with which I have enjoyed creating beautiful and colorful designs) and 2) Creating some kind of graphic representation for the bicultural influences Agustín shows in his work.  In some of Agustín’s early novels, he incorporates elements of American Popular culture from the early 60s and in some interviews he has cited the Beat Generation as an influence in his work.  Thus, I wanted to demonstrate not only Agustín’s perspective as a young Mexican writer in the early 1960s witnessing the border crossing of different cultural elements, but also of my perspective as an American student in the 21st century looking at Agustín’s perspective as a young Mexican writer looking at….(you get my point).  Wikipedia seemed like a good starting point to find a collective “definition” of Agustín, and there are search options in both English and Spanish.  It is important to point out that I recognize that “English” Wikipedia does NOT equate “American” and similarly, that “Spanish” Wikipedia does NOT equate “Mexican.”  So yes, this may not be the most Scientific study in terms of my initial goals (i.e. creating a visualization in terms of examining different cultural elements), but, I believe it introduces interesting questions about the differences and similarities of both History Flow designs.  Here is a refresher of the History Flow results for Agustín:

What do these results mean?  I can’t say for sure.  I could explain the different edits that have taken place, the arguments and deletions, and the creation of new secondary pages.  For example, in the English version, the page appears to lose a large amount of content about half-way on the x-axis.  This is because information about selected novels was deleted and re-posted on a newly created, linked page dedicated to the novels.  The black vertical gap on the Spanish result?  That is most likely vandalism, where the page was fully deleted by one editor.  Could we say that because there is evidence of vandalism on the Spanish result and not on the English, that Agustín has a more polemic presence in the Spanish-speaking world?  We could say that, but that is a big assumption, and there are many other factors at hand.  In fact, I would urge against any “conclusions” and instead look for any trends or patterns.  Comparing the Agustín pages piqued my curiosity about the English and Spanish results of other Wikipedia pages.  I decided to look at the results for other writers of the Onda (Gustavo Sainz and Parménides García Saldaña), the Literature of the Onda (searched by “La Onda” in English, and “Literatura de la onda” in Spanish) and just for fun, Mexican Literature (or, in the Spanish search, “Literatura de México).  Here are the results presented in a grid (x-axis L->R English, Spanish; y-axis Wikipedia search):

To me, what is of interest is: 1) Lack of entry for Parménides García Saldaña in English and 2) the English result for Mexican Literature: very few editors and changes, and then a big deletion.  I did not see any major trends or patterns save that the Spanish entries are more detailed.  This makes sense, I searched Mexican authors and topics.  This spurred my next comparison, American authors and novels.  I settled on Jack Kerouac (of the famed-Agustín-inspiring Beat generation) and “The Catcher in the Rye” (because I recently picked it up again, and comparisons have been drawn between some of Agustín’s first novels and this Salinger work):

Both the English and Spanish results for Kerouac and “The Catcher in the Rye” are similarly detailed and color-rich.  The global recognition of this particular author and this particular work is greater than that of the Onda writers, and it is important to take this fact into consideration.

Looking at all of the images, to me,  the English and Spanish versions of “The Catcher in the Rye” are the most similar.  They both seem to follow a similar pattern and have a similar amount of zig-zagging.   In contrast, The “Mexican Literature” results are the most different (excluding the García Saldaña page, for obvious reasons).

Earlier I advised against making conclusions, and I stand by that statement.  I think this particular exploratory exercise dwells more in the ludic, and less in the analytic, and I’m okay with that.


Visualizations and Pedagogy

One of the questions I that I feel has been lurking at the back of my mind over the course of this project, but that hasn’t really gotten much screentime, is that of pedagogy. I’ve thought about how visualizations inform and engage their viewers, but that has been fairly tightly focused on Creator+Image versus Image+Viewer, rather than the question currently on my mind: how exactly can we use visualization in the classroom?

The impetus for thinking about this question comes from an article I read last week: Five-Picture Charades: A Flexible Model for Technology Training in Digital Media Tools and Teaching Strategies. It posits a certain kind of visualization production known as playing charades–using cameras and photoediting software, much of which is free, to give future teachers a way to integrate both technology and exciting activities into the classroom.

I was taken with it as it represented yet another way to create images out of literature but in a manner that seemed to embrace some of the…let’s call them features of visualizations that I have been struggling with. As you may recall from previous posts, we’ve all thought about the problem of meaning making in visualizations and how the images we create always tell us far more than they tell the viewers. The act of creating the visualizations educates far better than the seeing of it. The game of charades is predicated on this point. First of all, it involves the students (or, in this case, teachers experimenting with it) in the actual production in a way that is fun and that forces them to think about how to translate their impressions of the work into another medium. But, perhaps more importantly, it actually takes advantage of the disconnect between the creator and the audience. Charades is focused entirely on conveying information through a visual format, so the creators need to think about whether they’re doing the best job they can at conveying information, while the audience also needs to work to understand the visualization. By turning visualization into a game, the viewers become participants.

So does this help bridge the gap between creator and viewer, introducing this new kind of ludic element into the mix?

And what do you think about these kind of classroom visualizations? Are they helpful education tools or gimmicks to replace engagement with entertainment? (And does that question depend on how old the class is?)




See? I really WAS doing an art project. Here are three (iphone camera) images of the semi finished product of my Pale King resin adventure. As I’ve said in other posts, I was inspired by thinking about processes of reading, especially at the high academic level where there are certain things that one consciously and unconsciously takes into the reading process (different things from everyone else?). I was also inspired by my struggles and productive mishaps with computer software like Pixelmator and GIMP. This is a good link to other versions of Open Source Photoshop-like programs. I generally hesitate to photograph epoxy art, because of the glare and the impossibility of capturing the depth that makes these pieces so interesting in my opinion. This particular work is about ten layers of epoxy, text, and acrylic paint on a wooden panel. Epoxy is a fascinating material, caustic and scientific (well, you wear gloves and have to measure accurately, it FEELS scientific) and fantastic for creating two dimensional art with a lot of thickness and profundity. I should probably mention that it is very expensive (this four foot squared painting used about $150 worth), and also that I happen to get it for free from a wonderful patron who is part of my family. System Three, the epoxy/resin company, also provides epoxy to a very talented artist in Seattle named Alan Fulle.

This project is finished for now, which means it will go on a wall and I will look at it until I get more epoxy and decide to take it down from the wall and keep working on it. This interim period sometimes takes a couple of years, depending on my academic workload. It has been very interesting for me to do a project for school that took so many forms, a true protean adventure that stretched my brain and reinvigorated my attachment and engagement to the book that started it all. Let me know what you think, and if you we know one another (or someone I know knows you) , you can always email me to come see any of my work in person.

Cleaning House

I was procrastinating today, which in this case meant cleaning up and organizing my computer. I thought it might be fun to post some of the many many images created in the course of the quarter. In thumbnail form, it almost looks like a quilt as well! Many of the forms created here have informed my epoxy project, as well.

How this year changed me

Although it’s been less than two weeks since the academic quarter ended, I find myself missing all things school related. That said, I am writing this post from my office on campus, so it’s not like I’ve left. Everyone else has though, that’s for sure. Campus becomes a bit of a ghost town in the summer, and this week is even more quiet because summer classes have yet to start. I most miss the pressure of the quarter system, which allowed/compelled me to write ten blog posts on LuAn within a very short period of time. I guess I just miss the pressure in general. I am currently in an awkward and new position of having nothing but my dissertation to work on for half of a year. I know that I’ve written here before about how tangential our digital endeavors are to my dissertation project, but over the last week I’ve gravitated more and more toward my computer, and not just Word, as I play around with my enormous project. For one, I have decided to create a website/wiki for the project, that will most likely only be open to a small number of colleagues and my committee until the dissertation is finished. I’ve been thinking a lot about sharing information and ideas freely, and I really do want to make as many parts of my work available online as possible. What that will do to/for me once I go on the job market is unclear, but as a young scholar I am still idealistic enough to imagine my thoughts might help someone else and no one will appropriate them in any sort of damaging way. We shall see. Stephen Ramsay’s blog is an excellent example of a site which shares a lot of phenomenal academic work free of charge. I really can’t say enough about how his blog and book have changed my way of thinking this year.

I have also been using presentation and modeling software to try to make sense of some organizational issues I’m having. To summarize in an unsatisfactory way, my dissertation looks at corporate spaces and individual resistances within, through readings of a handful of contemporary novels that engage with theories of power and management. There are some films thrown into the bag, and I am also looking at new media. Organizing the general chapters has been a bear. I initially wanted to write four chapters, each focusing on a main book. I was then encouraged to try to organize according to types of corporate spaces I have found in my research (spaces of boredom, networked spaces, etc), and finally we have come somewhat full circle back to the book by book organization. One of my committee members suggested I think of each chapter as a constellation, an idea I’ve always found very elegant since my readings of Benjamin. Yet, since I’m not writing The Arcades Project, I am struggling with how a constellation becomes a dissertation chapter. Enter Prezi. I am doing some mapping that may in part be a way of putting off the inevitable–writing–but seems to be helping me make sense visually of my thoughts. I thought about posting some of them, but for now I will reserve them for my private site, and will continue to tinker and refine in the hopes that at some point I will be able to share them with you all.

My resin/Pale King manual art project is also coming along, and I thought I might share a picture of one of the first layers of work. What you can see is my plastic drop cloth (epoxy does not attach to plastic, thankfully), the interesting looking discs are actually just plates to prop up the frame because I do not live in a level house, and the first layer of painting/text (acrylic paint, and the text is glued down to the wood with elmer’s). I will perhaps post other pictures showing the progression, I have been considering making an animation of the process as well. Image

Summer days

It’s been a few days since I’ve had time to contribute.  I have many excuses (final exams to grade, graduation events, friends moving out of town), but I also think there’s still this child-like joy that one experiences at the beginning of summer that sends one outside, rather than inside by the computer.  However, this does not mean that I have shirked on my work on visualizations (I’ve just not been a good poster).  As Meaghan mentioned, we had our last seminar session and presented some of our work.  It was a great session, and I was really impressed with everyone’s work.

We started our own project with the knowingly simplified goal of creating a “pretty” visualization and a “useful” one.  However, as we worked both with and within our respective texts, we found that the most productive results came from the process of creating the visualizations and not from the actual visualizations themselves.

Yet, I still wanted to make a “pretty” visualization; holding strong to our original goal.  I wanted something that was separated from the text visually, but still have an underlying connection; an image one could look at and not immediately realize its association to José Agustín or La tumba.  As follows, I present this visualization:

Quilt made by stitching together History Flow results of the English and Spanish language results of José Agustín

I call it a quilt because I digitally stitched together repeating patterns of the History Flow results of “José Agustín” from both the English and the Spanish Wikipedia sites.  I think the result turned out “pretty,” but that is a subjective term.

When presenting this image, one of our classmates, Amanda, brought up the question of design, and how much that plays a role in our visualizations.  I thought it an interesting question.  Essentially, as LuAn has progressed, we aimed to create “pretty” visualizations that are also “useful”, which plays on design’s themes of aesthetics and functionality.

When I heard her question, I realized she was right, in that we should pay attention to design, or utilize some tenets of this field.  However, I also freaked out a bit.  Already with DH  you are expected to program, or at least know a bit about programming, you are expected be adept at traditional literary analysis, you should be able to use digital graphing programs and other tools.  In short, how multidisciplinary can one be?

This summer, in addition to finishing my dissertation of course, I plan to work on refreshing my long lost coding skills, familiarize myself with more “toys” in the toy chest, and now, read up a bit about design.  Any reading suggestions?

Interdisciplinarity and Collaboration

Yesterday was the final meeting of the seminar which encouraged us to create this blog. During the three hours of our meeting, each of the four groups presented their respective projects and we had small amounts of time to ask questions and comment on their work. I was sincerely blown away by a) the amount of work everyone (this group included) had done, and b) the fascinating range of interests and directions the projects demonstrated. It seems necessary to say a few more words about this seminar, especially for those of you who are either not part of the seminar (hopefully more of you will be in this boat as our readership widens) or who have not clicked on the links to Alan’s beautiful home site for the seminar. Unbeknownst to me (before March of 2012), the digital humanities community on UCSB’s campus is a thriving and productive group of fascinating professors and students. Our professor, Alan, is definitely in the foreground of this group, and his carefully designed seminar engages with a good deal of important DH theory, and centers on a collaborative student project that uses digital tools to engage with some type of text, be it a novel, poem, video game, television show, or film. Our project is mostly available on this blog site, but the seminar site which is linked to above also provides a bit more information about us, our reading lists, and our academic interests. This seminar has allowed me to grow and mutate in directions I had never envisioned as a scholar. Deformance, textual analysis, and visualizations were foreign to me (okay, I was actually familiar with McGann and Samuels, but everything else is true) as scholarly and pedagogical tools. I emerge from this seminar with a reawakened energy for scholarship and a long list of blogs and books to read, people to watch, and projects to undertake. I am deeply indebted to Alan for creating this incredible course, and to my fellow graduate students for their fascinating projects and their enthusiasm in general. I would sincerely encourage you all to examine the course page, especially the project pages from the other groups. Amanda, Tom, Mary Jane, Hannah, and Alston have done incredible work that demonstrates the flexibility of the course and the extremely exciting diversity of minds within the various departments represented in our seminar. I am thrilled to have met them and learned about their work.

This is writing itself like a farewell, but in fact I have two other posts in the works that return to essays I read earlier this year, and other posts will follow as my brain spins. Keep reading, because all three of us want to keep sharing our thoughts! And pictures. Below is a link to my final reflections on our course and project, it’s a longer read (eight pages, not too bad) but might be interesting for those of you who are curious about the parameters of the seminar.


Reflection Paper