Posts Tagged ‘ visualization ’

Robots Frozen in the Snow

I realize I haven’t been posting as frequently as I should.  The reasons for this are less about my having nothing to post and more a complete lack of time to do so.  The Asimov Robot Stories research continues, though I’ve lost a bit of the momentum I’d gained last term thanks to impending deadlines.  I will be presenting my paper Meditating on the Robot (see below) at HuCon at the end of the month.

Among other things, my time is being dominated by a project with the University of Alberta Press’s forthcoming publication, Weeds of North America.  As part of a project management course, I’m offering my services (for free) to help develop a database system that could be used for future editions of the field guide.  It would essentially be an updatable and comprehensive catalogue of weeds.  Completion of the project, of course, is contingent on my learning how to build a database (or, if the deadline starts looming, finding someone who can).

There’s a few other things I’ve been working on, but nothing concrete enough for me to post here.  I’m currently workshopping my research proposal about using social media in organizations for mission statement dissemination, particularly in terms of methodology.  If the project looks feasible and I’m feeling good about it, I’m looking at submitting an application for ethics review this summer, and starting interviews in the Fall/Winter terms.

I’ve also been mulling over how I could approach future research with XML/Mandala browser; the Robot Stories paper got me thinking about how XML can be used as a new form of close reading that allows users to compile and compare notes in a visual, intuitive medium (i.e. rich prospect browser, like Mandala).  Recently it struck me that it would be relatively easy to conduct a user study with a variety of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in the English dept as subjects to test this.  I could consider the results in terms of reader response theory, or simply present them as informing new methods in scholarship.  Questions/Issues: how would I compare XML-close-reading with traditional close reading?  Is it even possible?  How would I go about writing a program that would allow users to encode texts without actually having to learn XML?  Something that could output the XML that could then be viewed in Mandala.


PDF – Meditating on the Robot

Affordances and the Reality of Perception

HuCo 500 – Weekly questions

An affordance, it is said, points two ways, to the environment and to the observer.  …It says only that the information to specify the utilities of the environment is accompanied by information to specify the observer himself, his body, legs, hands, and mouth.  This is wholly inconsistent with dualism of any form…  The awareness of the world and of one’s complementary relations to the world are not separable.(Gibson, 141)

Maybe I am misunderstanding Gibson’s point, but the claim that the theory of affordances dispels the notion of dualism of any kind seems to be quite a leap, making assumptions about what reality and perception are.  How do you separate subjective sense-making (i.e. perception of one’s environment/reality) from objective fact (what Gibson calls “invariants”)?  It is certainly true that the affordances of an object as evaluated by a biped, for instance, will be different than those evaluated by a quadruped, and that either evaluation says something about the evaluator (i.e. that they are a two-legged or a four-legged).  That doesn’t mean that the act of evaluating—the interpretive or perceptive act—is not subject to the context and experience of the ego.  Gibson makes allowances for “misinformation” and “misperception” (142); I’m not sure how he can reconcile this allowance with his claim that there can be no mind-body/abstract-concrete/mental-physical dualism.    

Is there still such a large gap in the affordances of paper compared to computers, as Gaver describes (115-117)?  Do computers today offer all the same affordances of paper?  Is there anything that paper affords that computers/cell phones/electronic devices today do not?


Gaver, William W. “Situating Action II: Affordances for Interaction: The Social Is Material for Design.” Ecological Psychology 8(2), 1996. 111-129

Gibson, J.J. “The Theory of Affordances.” The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986.

Asimov Update: Gender and Otherness

I’ve been working on my encoding of Asimov’s robot stories, and reworked the pr_ref tag to include attributes for the source gender and “otherness”, as well as generalized the source attribute values (phuman, shuman, probot, srobot, nvoice) so it can be used when analyzing a corpus of different texts.

My encoding can now examine the relation to gender of human-robot interactions in the text (i.e. do more female characters respond emotionally to the robots than male characters?  Do male characters physically interact with the robots more? etc.)

I can also track which references demonstrate a portrayal of the robot as “other”, and which references portray the robot as “same” in relation to the source factions in the text.  This otherness/sameness dichotomy is by no means a perfect science, but given a careful reading most references in the text usually imply one or the other.   (Not unlike determining the difference between an emotive and an interactive reference, determining “otherness” relies on interpretation.)

As well, I have made it possible for the principal robot character to reference itself.  This is important in a text like “Someday”, where the robot “the Bard” tells a story about itself.

Click on the screenshot below to see an example of how I’m using the Mandala browser to visualize these features.

Mandala Browser

The Bard's robot references and their "otherness"

Pleasure-seeking scholarly primitives

HuCo500 – Weekly questions

According to Aristotle, scientific knowledge (episteme) must be expressed in statements that follow deductively from a finite list of self-evident statements (axioms) and only employ terms defined from a finite list of self-understood terms (primitives). [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] (Unsworth)

In his article, Unsworth uses the notion of “primitives” as a way of understanding how humanities researchers can put digital methods into practice.  More specifically, he looks at how Aristotle’s “episteme” could be applied as a method in interface design.  In reading the article, it seemed that the “scholarly primitives” (our finite list of self-understood terms) stood in for the basic needs of the “scholarly” user.  Could we alternately frame Unsworth’s “scholarly primitives” by defining the user’s basic needs as the starting point in designing interfaces (for humanities scholars)?


From a theoretical perspective, the exploration of online browsing environments can be situated wihtin the design of new digital affordances…  As Frascara (xvii) points out, such affordances are particularly attractive when they exist in a context of an environment specifically inteneded to support and extend communication: “We need so much to see what surrounds us that the sheer fact of seeing a wide panorama gives us pleasure.” (Ruecker)

Is “pleasure” a goal of humanities research?  Is this perhaps where we can situate the previously discussed element of “play” and its role in digital humanities methods (e.g. Sinclair’s Hyperpo, Ramsay’s ‘Algorithmic Criticism’, Manovich’s ‘Cultural Analytics’)?



Ruecker, Stan. “Experimental Interfaces Involving Visual Grouping During Browsing.” Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. 1(1). 2006.

Unsworth, John. “Scholarly Primitives: what methods do humanities researchers have in common, and how might our tools reflect this?” part of a symposium on “Humanities Computing: formal methods, experimental practice” sponsored by King’s College, London. 2000.

Speculative Computing, Digital Media, and Visual Quotation

HuCo 500 – Weekly questions

Kolker posits that digital media answers the problem film scholars face in referencing a work by means of quotation to prove or illustrate an argument.  Putting aside for the moment the obstacles film scholars face with regard to programming/computing requirements, available technologies and resources, and copyright and intellectual property issues, how does the implementation of digital media as means of quotation change the way we conduct research/scholarship?  Kolker uses CD-ROM and the Web as examples of how digital media can be integrated in critical analysis; what are some other examples of how new media can be employed to benefit scholarly research and answer the problem of quotation?


From a distance, even a middle distance of practical engagement, much of what is currently done in digital humanities has the look of automation. (Drucker & Nowviskie)

Is this statement true?  I would argue that even a cursory examination of digital humanities should show that it is more than merely about “automation” or computational methods in the service of traditional humanities research.  It seems clear to me already, as it did when I first became interested in issues “cybercultural” (and long before I entered this MA program) that digital humanities is as much about the technologies we use as it is the use of technology (to “theoretically gloss” our discussions, as Drucker & Nowviskie phrase it).


Bonus question:

The requirement that a work of fiction or poetry be understood as an “ordered hierarchy of content objects”… raises issues, as Jerome McGann has pointed out. (Drucker & Nowviskie)

How else can we understand a work or text, if not as an “ordered hierarchy of content objects”?  What are the alternatives?  How else can we conceptualize such works, and how would we formalize these conceptualizations using computational methods?



Drucker, Johanna (and Bethany Nowviskie). “Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocations in Humanities Computing.” A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Kolker, Robert. “Digital Media and the Analysis of Film.” A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.


“Born Digital” Experiences: Identity crisis waiting to happen?

HuCo 500 – Weekly questions


Note: Rather than two separate questions, this week I’ve come up with a series of related questions addressing a single idea inspired by one of the readings. These questions take the form of a short, personal response.

As our lives and experiences become more digital, the records of our experiences become less tangible. (Viegas et al, 2004)

Is this statement true? It seems to me when considering the digital/analog dichotomy, the ‘record of our experiences’ has in fact become more explicit with the advent of the Internet. Social media applications such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter allow us to track our lives in the most minute detail; blogging, microblogging, “lifestreams”, these all provide ways for us to record and trace our experiences over time. Social networks (Facebook, MySpace) allow us to track the relationships that we maintain and the patterns that they represent in our lives. If anything, the ‘record of our experiences’ has become more tangible, not less. The question is rather how accurate a representation of our experiences is the record? Our digital record naturally biases our “born digital” experiences (to borrow a term from last week’s readings); the Internet is a space in which we spend a significant portion of our lives and where we have experiences (rather than simply being a medium with which to record them). For example, the relationships we make within a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) may be more heavily recorded online than relationships we have in our “analog” lives. Does that make them more or less real? More or less important?

The argument presented by Viegas et al. suggests that there are digital experiences that are obscured from the record; but how is this different than “analog” experiences (i.e. the experiences that occur outside the digital space)? There are many things that we do that do not require, demand, or deserve to be recorded. I can’t remember, for instance, what I had for breakfast three weeks ago last Monday. In this sense, the record has not become more or less tangible; it is, perhaps, less relevant. Perhaps the problem is how we make sense of the massive amount of information we create in the digital space. We need to translate the digital record of our experiences into something we can interpret more easily– into something “analog”. Visualization is one of the tools that allow us to do this. In essence, visualization is translation of digital media.

Viegas et al. indicate that we attach personal meaning to objects, that these objects are tied to our senses of self and reality, of what is and who we are. The fact that they are examining email as one such object indicates that these objects can just as easily be virtual as physical. As our lives become more digital, so will the objects we imbue with meaning. What will this mean for us and how we construct our realities?


Viegas, Fernanda, danah boyd, David H. Nguyen, Jeffrey Potter, and Judith Donath (2004). Digital Artifacts for Remembering and Storytelling: PostHistory and SocialNetworkFragments. Proceedings of the 37th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

Arya, Agustin (2003). The Hidden Side of Visualization. Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology. Winter 2003.

Designing Users/Interfaces

Huco 500 – Weekly questions

Tognazzini uses the term “user” quite a bit in his article without qualifying it.  He indicates that the most important part of building an interface that “anticipates” a user’s needs is knowing your user, but this goes without saying.  The user as a concept relies entirely on the service one offers; the user for a medical reference database for medical professionals will not be the same as the user of a social media application (e.g. Twitter).  It might be more valuable to start by thinking about the service an interface offers, and to consider the best/most effective possible way of showcasing/presenting that service.  Determining user expectations and behaviours will be much easier once this task is complete, and will avoid making generalizations about what users want.

Effective applications and services perform a maximum of work, while requiring a minimum of information from users. (Tognazzini)

How do you determine what the “minimum” is?  The interface still relies on the user having some idea of what result they need.  A developer should start with what service(s) the interface assists with, and build the interface based on what the requirements are to fulfill that service.  Note that the less information a user provides the less accurate a result will be.

How do you conduct an interface user study?  What tasks do you need test users to perform?  What questions should you ask?  How do you measure effectiveness and efficiency?


Tognazzini, Bruce. “First Principles of Interaction Design.” Last accessed 7 October 2009.