Monday, December 1, 2014

Itch for locations remote?

 

Erik Wernquist created a short film entitled "Wanderers" narrated by Carl Sagan (from 1994's Pale Blue Dot) that shows what future explorers may be in for. According to Wernquist, "The locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available. Without any apparent story, other than what you may fill in by yourself, the idea with the film is primarily to show a glimpse of the fantastic and beautiful nature that surrounds us on our neighboring worlds - and above all, how it might appear to us if we were there." 

It's a beautiful film, a look at what man can hope for.

But then there is the other side of man's race for technology as seen in Danny Cooke's "Postcards from Pripyat, Chernobyl," a film made using a drone to fly over the city that suffered a nuclear catastrophe on April 26, 1986. A nuclear disaster that exposed the area to 400 times more radiation than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Scientists are currently studying the effects of radiation on the area's wildlife, including birds with tumors and spiders that spin asymmetrical webs. It is believed that Pripyt is safe to visit for short periods of time.



When will you be able to visit Chernobyl for a longer vacation? 20,000 years from now.

Would you travel to outer space? Do you think that the dream is worth the risks? What remote locale are you itching to see? 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies, and Charts?

Over at Nautilus, Becca Cudmore is puzzled by how the same information can be displayed on charts with two entirely different attitudes, or spin. According to Ruth Rosenholtz, a scientist over at MIT, the way you can tell if a chart is trying to deceive you is by how long it takes you to figure out what that visual is trying to say. "A bad chart requires more cognitive processes and more reasoning about what you’ve seen."

Since you are often required to use visuals, including graphs and charts, let's take a look at a couple of Nautilus's examples of what you should NOT do.

Puzzling Perspective - The purple chart is about "labor." It is displaying the same information, so why do these charts look so different?

The pie chart on the right puts labor up front and closer to you, so it takes up more space. The chart at left puts the labor information farther away from you, so it takes less space (think vanishing point perspective).

In other words, making your numbers look bigger or smaller depends on your perspective.

Swindling Shapes - In this graph, like the former pie chart, it is displaying the exact same information, and the only relevant property of the bar is height. However when the shape is changed to a 3-D cone it makes the information harder to interpret.

The red information at the top of the chart on the left is administrative costs and the blue tip of the cone on the right is also administrative costs - do those two bits of visual information look the same to you?

"In both charts, administrative costs take almost a third of each dollar. While this matches reasonably with the left chart, the right chart seems to shrink administrative costs to something much less than a third. 'Anytime you ask anyone to judge just height and ignore the other measurements,' says Rosenholtz, 'it’s going to take extra cognitive load to disregard these other cues.'” In other words, the chart takes more time to figure out--a good sign you are being deceived.

Charts are a great way to take in a lot of information in an instant, but like any other text, they can be rhetorically dishonest. So the next time you read a graph, ask yourself if the material is being displayed honestly? Have you ever created a chart that may have presented your material in a biased way?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

What's an In-Text Citation?

You would think it would be crazy hard for new academic writers to write a college-level academic paper, but NO! What's really hard for new academic writers is to format that paper correctly, especially when it comes to IN-TEXT CITATIONS (YES! that is ALL CAPS and BOLD). Why? I don't know...it seems pretty straightforward to me, but then I've been writing and grading academic papers for a long time...

So here's the basics: If you borrow someone's idea, you have to give him or her credit--it's their idea. They did a lot of work to come up with something original, so give credit where credit is due. A person's ideas can be expressed verbally or in writing. A writer can use those ideas by paraphrasing, summarizing or quoting directly. Any way you borrow from someone, you must cite those ideas with an in-text citation within your text (we're not talking about Works Cited pages for now).

So, wanna practice? Do it anyway. Here's a link to MLA In-text and Works Cited Quiz (20 questions).

So how did you do? What did you learn? Do you disagree with any of the answers?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Best Infographics of 2014

Existential Calculator


Over at Brain Pickings they are featuring a few examples from the newly released, Best Infographics of 2014.
Why study infographics? Do you want to decide whether or not to take a job? Use the Existential Calculator (see graphic). "It organizes the spectrum of possible work outcomes—from pleasurable to spiritually degrading, from well-paying to debt-enhancing, from exciting to 'meh'—and shows where the reader is likely to land, based on what they tell it about the potential job.'" (Kelli Andersom)
 Some of the other graphics to linger over are the fears of a cat wandering through San Francisco (LOL, some of those fears resemble my own).

Brain Pickings' post mentions one of my favorite creators and chart busters, Edward Tufte, noting that:

"Tufte and others have long spoken to the importance of minimalism in information design. But it proved to be more important as design was translated onto the web, where attention spans are measured in seconds and the next graphic is but a mouse-click or hand-swipe away. More isn’t always better: no more in information design than in poetry, or painting, or product design. A superfluous axis on a chart, an extra dimension of information, can distract from the focal point just as much as an extraneous word in a sonnet or an unnecessary button on a tablet. It can reduce the signal-to-noise ratio and leave the viewer less well informed.
Successful examples of information design can sometimes be highly intricate, but these cases usually involve a layered approach. The most essential elements of the graphic — the most essential parts of the story — jump out immediately."
If you think about it - reading a visual can be a far easier way to take in a lot of information in an instant. Think about a graph that shows literacy percentages by state. Would you rather read through sentence after sentence of numbers, or look at a bar graph that immediately conveys the idea of which states need to do more reading.

What kind of informational graphs do you like? Can you remember a graph that made you go hmmmmm?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

National Cyber Security Month

There is a month for everything, including Cyber Security. The infographic produced by SingleHop posits some interesting myths, especially "the internet is so big no one would pick on me," and "there isn't anything worth stealing on my computer."

Oh, yeah?

The Telegraph just ran an article about this very same issue, entitled "How Hackers Took Over My Computer." A test subject asked an "ethical hacker" to see what kind of harm they could do if they were unethical. The subject stated that she had "high security" ratings on social media accounts, but here's what happened:

  • Hackers discovered the subject's personal stats (birth date and family members) via a popular online ancestry website.
  • Twitter offered up the subject's work email address.
  • Recent locations subject visited were available through Facebook
  • LinkedIn disclosed workplace data 
But why do hackers want to know this information? To get the subject to open an email from somebody she "seemed" to know.

Eventually, she was sent an email that "contained a tiny image (just one pixel by one pixel). This was the hackers' first attempt to 'fingerprint' my computer. The aim of this is to identify which operating system the computer is running, as well as which browser I was using, which browser add-ons I had, and which security software might be running on the computer."


The "ethical hacker" eventually broke in through a social media site and gained full control over her computer. Can you imagine the havoc someone could wreak if they took over your computer?

How safe do you think your info (and computer) is?

Monday, October 6, 2014

You Know You Need to Kill Your Cell Phone If . . .



So you're driving through Hollywood somewhere and spot Kirsten Dunst of Spiderman fame - what do you do?

Do you stop, jump out your car, and take a selfie? Well, that's just what happened in this short film. Think this is just a bit of exaggeration? I doubt it. But that's not the only sign that you are addicted to your cell phone.

You know you need to kill your cell phone if . . .

  • you have ever run into a pole (or any other large item) while texting.
  • you can't remember how to write with a pen or pencil anymore and find yourself just taking pictures of the notes on the board.
  • feel an event didn't happen unless you take a bazillion selfies on your phone while attending.
  • can't make it through a family meal (or any meal for that matter) without picking up your phone.
  • can feel your phone vibrating inside your pocket when it is in your purse or backpack.
  • can't handle not being able to see your cell phone 24-hours a day because it causes you mental anxiety.
  • have to have answer your cell phone while you should be sleeping OR keeping your cell phone under your pillow or on your nightstand.
  • check your cell phone before you brush your teeth in the morning.
  • incessantly check social media to see what your "friends" are doing.
  • passing one of your cell phone friends on campus (or see them in the gym) and completely ignore them.
  • and, finally, see Kirsten Dunst standing on the side of the road and instead of talking to her, insist on snapping a couple of selfies.
What other behaviors would you add to this list?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Is that a Giant Toilet?

Ummm, yes it certainly looks like one.

Mr. Crapper may have invented the first flush toilet, but he probably never suspected that we would be playing basketball in one.

That's righ sports fans, the Golden State Warriors' new arena may just be a giant commode. I know we want to put our favorite sport's heroes on a throne, but this may be taking things too far.

Apparently, the plans for the new stadium were getting too expensive so they were flushed for new renderings.

How much money do you think the architectural firm charged for this rendering of San Francisco's latest sports' arena? SF could have just called Moen or Price Pfister and enlarged one of their commode schematics.

Can you hear the announcers now? Thankfully, there is no one named John on the team.

What does this post have to do with college, careers, comics, or writing? I'm not sure . . . but it sure is strange that architects with an advanced degree came up with a gigantic toilet of an arena.

What other household appliance do you think would make a good arena?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Women are Better Writers

http://www.grammarly.com/
At least that's what 3,000 writers said when they were polled by Grammarly, the world's best grammar checker.

But why are women better?

According to those polled, women are better writers because they spend more time developing characters, women like to write more about people rather than things. Women are even better writers because they like to write purple prose -- "long, descriptive sentences."

Or maybe this is just all a bunch of stereotyping?

I would really like to know what the internals of this poll are. How many men were polled? How many women? What were the ages of those polled?

If you look at the results of this poll (and it doesn't claim to be scientific), what would you guess about the internals?

Do you agree with the results? Do you believe women are better writers than men?

Who are some of the greatest writers of all time? Ouch, those are men, but is this the result of the male-dominated culture of the past?

Who do you believe is one of the greatest writers alive today? What makes he or she a great writer?

As you write your college essays, you may want to think about what makes a great writer and incorporate those techniques into your own writing.


Monday, August 4, 2014

200 Free Documentaries


Do you like documentaries? Over at Open Culture they've collected 200 free documentaries along with accompanying links.

The post includes A Brief History of Time (1992) about Stephen Hawking and Bed Peace (1969), John Lennon and Yoko Ono's protest of the Vietnam War, to Billie Holiday: The Life and Artistry of Lady Day (2002) and Audio Ammunition, a web site devoted to short documentaries.

There are items by or about some of the best in the business including David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock. The world's most (in)famous from the music industry are also represented including Bob Marley, Lou Reed and The Ramones. Look at new films, old films, how-to films (Disney animation), silent films, music films. There is enough there to keep you interested for a while.

Documentaries let us examine the real world through the filmmaker's lens. They let us see the past, albeit filtered through the camera, our current world, and possibilities for the future. What was the last documentary you watched?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

World's Richest Superheroes Go To College

The Black Panther isn't just the world's richest superhero, he also has a super education. The Black Panther "has a Ph.D. in Physics from Oxford University and is considered to be one of the eighth smartest people on the planet." He needs that intellect in order to run his own country located somewhere on the African continent.  His estimated worth $500 billion.

Buddy Loans created the infographic, "The World's Richest Superheroes", which lists the top eight pocketbooks as well as the top intellects.

Infographics and comics--what a great combination.  Also, my college friends notice that this graphic contains a "Sources" section that cites Marvel, X-Men Wikia, DC Wikia, and, of course, Forbes. How's that for ethos?

Following the Black Panther on the intelligence scale is Batman aka Bruce Wayne who is a graduate of Yale Law School. His holdings include Wayne Enterprises, a company that holds many patents for all his gadgets and vehicles. Wayne's inheritance and education earned him $80 billion.

Professor Charles Xavier, M.D., Ph.D., graduated from Harvard at the age of 16. Not only is he the founder of the X-Men, he has built his wealth through a series of shrewd investments.  He grew his inheritance to $3.5 billion.

So it's not just superpowers that make our favorite heroes rich, it's also their super educations.

Where is your education going to take you?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Wanna Talk Alien? Need to Speak Visuals!

Reading visuals - even NASA does it.

Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication is a recent tile released by NASA, edited by Douglas A. Vakoch. Vakoch believes that when ET tries to communicate with us it will not be through sound but via images. All the stuff you had to learn about reading images is going to come in handy.
"Vision and the use of images would appear to be at least plausible. Although spectral details cannot be considered universal, the physical arrangement of objects on a habitable planet’s surface will be shaped in part by gravity (the notion of a horizon might well be universal) and thus multispectral images might plausibly be considered worthwhile for messages."
So what kind of images do we send out?

One message contained the binary numbers one through ten, equations of basic chemistry, human bio chemistry, and DNA.  Another contained a drawing of what we look like, pulsar directives, and a schematic of our solar system. In other words, a extraterrestrial comic!

What do you think these messages say to an alien? We are a carbon-based life form that likes to count and lives way out on the edges of the galaxy.

How would you create an extraterrestrial comic? What visual would you offer ET?

Colors? Lights? Elements?

A beautiful picture of nature? A crowded city street?

The golden arches? An apple? A swoosh?

It's up to you what message are we sending out on our next rocket?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Feeling Stressed? Good! But Stay Calm

Stress is a necessary evil.  While we don't want to walk around feeling stressed all the time, it does help get successful results.

We want to be in the middle of that bell curve when stress leads to increased attention and interest, but right before it causes strong anxiety.

As you climb toward optimal performance, you have to stay calm because once you lose your cool, well, that can quickly lead to a "complete meltdown."  So what do successful people do to stay cool?

Travis Bradberry over at Forbes.com offers us some insight about how successful people stay calm.

Appreciate what you have. "Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn't merely the 'right' thing to do. It also improves your mood, because it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%." Remember, 99 percent of the world's population, alive or dead, would love to be a college student in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Avoid asking what if? "Calm people know that asking “what if? will only take them to a place they don’t want—or need—to go." At least wait until after you've taken your last final - for now just study.

Stay positive. "Positive thoughts help make stress intermittent by focusing your brain’s attention onto something that is completely stress-free." What are you going to do after finals? Going on a vacation, going home?

Disconnect. "Forcing yourself offline and even—gulp!—turning off your phone gives your body a break from a constant source of stress. Studies have shown that something as simple as an email break can lower stress levels. Technology enables constant communication and the expectation that you should be available 24/7." Turn the phone off - I mean power it down - and then go for a walk while looking at nature, not your cell phone screen. Remember, the best studying is done in 30-minute stretches surrounded by small breaks.

Limit your caffeine intake. Yikes! This would be tough. How about no caffeine after 2:00 p.m., so you can . . .

Sleep. Studies have shown that adolescents (and some of you are not far from adolescence) need as much sleep as toddlers. Your bodies and brains are changing so fast that your body needs time to recharge. No studying until 3:00 a.m. - try studying some every day.

Squash negative talk. Especially interior negative talk. This is a bad habit some of us fall into. So take a gossip break, no badmouthing others, no badmouthing yourself. It just leads to a negative attitude.

Breathe. Yes, take a deep breath instead of destroying your computer after you hit delete instead of save. BTW as soon as you open a new document save it, and then save it often.

Use your support system. You should have quite a support system by now. If you can't remember the assignment, there's an email tool inside all your class websites. Use it.

I bet there are a lot of successful college students out there. What do you do to stay calm in the face of stress?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What Would Your Internet Search History Say About You?

What if someone only got to know who you were based on your internet search history? What do you think he or she would think of you as a person? What kind of an analysis could be performed based on your search history?

How about whole states? Estately, a website that claims to be "an addictive easy way to shop for homes" did just that.  "The results ranged from mildly amusing to completely disturbing. No doubt this information will come in handy for anyone trying to decide which state they want to buy a home in, especially for those curious how their potential neighbors spend their time online."

Here's a sampling of the first four states in the Union (listed alphabetically):

ALABAMA:  FOX News / God / Impeach Obama / Jesus / Jessica Simpson / Obama Is The Antichrist / Polka  / Satan
          Analysis:  It’s a fire and brimstone kind of state, but with a soft spot for pretty blondes.

ALASKA:   Adult Friend Finder / AR-15 / Bestiality / Bird Watching / Couch Surfing / Mail Order Bride / Pull Tabs / Sarah Palin
          Analysis:  It’s awful lonely up north.

ARIZONA:  Conjugal Visits / Hippies / Scorpion Sting / How are babies made?
          Analysis:  Things you’d overhear on an Arizona hippie commune:  “I have to reschedule my conjugal visit because have to see a doctor about this scorpion sting.

ARKANSAS:  Atkins Diet / End of Days / Lap Band Surgery / Learn to Read / Walmart Jobs
          Analysis:  In 2013, Arkansas was declared the most obese state in America, and evidently they did something about it because in 2014 they’re now the second most obese.

. . . and then we get to our own lovable state of California.

CALIFORNIA: Alcoholics Anonymous / Bros Before Hos / Dandruff Cure / Food Poisoning / Google Glass / Kim Kardashian / Meat is Murder / Paris Hilton / Pokemon / Rogaine / What does Siri look like?

Analysis anyone?  You have learned how to do analysis and critical thinking throughout your college career, what does California's favorite web searches say about us?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Devoid of Humanity? Ask this "Ethics" App

The Marrkkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley held a contest asking students to develop an Ethical Decision making app that incorporated values presented in the "Framework for Ethical Decision Making":
"Making good ethical decisions requires a trained sensitivity to ethical issues and a practiced method for exploring the ethical aspects of a decision … The more novel and difficult the ethical choice we face, the more we need to rely on discussion and dialogue with others about the dilemma. Only by careful exploration of the problem, aided by the insights and different perspectives of others, can we make good ethical choices in such situations. We have found [this] framework for ethical decision making a useful method for exploring ethical dilemmas and identifying ethical courses of action."
See any problems with this brand of moral decision making? What discussion and dialogue or insights of different perspectives can you get from your phone?

Why did the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics want to develop such an app? According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed "The Santa Clara ethicists hope that people who make decisions that will change lives—business leaders, hospital administrators, and school officials, for instance—will use the app as a guide."

Really? We are going to offer our public leaders an app in order to make moral and ethical decisions?

As you can imagine there are some skeptics--and they are hashing it out on social media. The moral decision making app “references terms the noneducated in ethics won’t understand & is hilariously oversimplistic for those who are,” wrote one skeptic on Twitter. This just keeps getting better and better. Discussion and dialogue about moral ethics in 140 characters or less.
But simplicity is part of the idea, says Miriam Schulman, assistant director of the applied-ethics center. 
“We tend to work with people where the rubber meets the road,” she says. The point is not to get a client up to speed on thousands of years of moral philosophy, says Ms. Schulman. Instead, it’s to get him or her to deliberate in a slightly more organized way.
Are we really that devoid of morals?  Do we really need to study "thousands of years of moral philosphy" in order to make an ethical decision? Don't these people have parents or kids or even pets?

Your capacity to make deliberate choices is what makes you human.  Are you going to abandon your humanity to an app?  If so, why should you be allowed to vote? Or raise children? Or decide who gets medical treatment? Or who should attend college? What does the college-educated "app" between your ears think about that?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Successful Revising Techniques

Rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost.
—William Zinsser

This is very true - instructors don't expect everything in the first draft and, in fact, expect what Anne Lammott would call a "shitty first draft."

Here is some basic advice when it comes to revising drafts:
1) Revision is NOT just about fixing grammar and spelling. 
2) Revision is NOT just about moving some words around or finding every synonym Word has to offer. 
3) REREAD the prompt.  Are you answering the question being proffered, or have you gone off on some tangent? Get back on track and revise towards the prompt.
4) Check in with your thesis.  Is this the paper you just wrote, or did you discover a new approach towards the topic as you wrote your exploratory draft?  Make necessary adjustments. 
5)  When revising the next draft "think big"....what kind of evidence (stats, facts, quotes, examples) do you need to support ALL of your points?  Does your paper display a stunning use of ethos, pathos, and logos? 
6) Oh, and last of all know this, revision should take a lot longer than your initial draft.  So give yourself time to write a final draft.
This isn't the be-all list of revision, revision is a personal process and many successful revisers have different strategies.

What is the most successful strategy you employ when revising an essay?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Colored Rhetoric of Advertising

This is a great infographic entitled Psychology of Color - Analysis of Brands Color over at uFunk.net.

Remember advertisers are experts at the use of rhetoric and color is just one aspect.  What do you find most surprising to learn about your favorite color?


Monday, April 28, 2014

Digital Shadow: Just Plain Creepy

You go about your life unaware
of the Digital Shadow you cast_
 
Your life is measured in gigabytes.
Data comes at a cost_
Algorithms can predict your interests,
your desires, even your fantasies_
These are some of the ominous calculations Digital Shadow performs using your digital footprint.

Want to know who is secretly stalking you?

Want to know who your pawns are?

Don't think you have a very large digital footprint?

Well, guess again.  Among other things Digital Shadow will tell you about your "Liabilities" or people that consistently post about you making you vulnerable to attack. It also lists your "Obsessions" and "Scapegoats" -- people you would sacrifice if you had too.

Digital Shadow looks at your online Facebook data and provides a psychological profile of the digital you.  Perhaps the digital you is "Neurotic and exhibits high levels of self-absorption and insecurity" meaning you can be easily threatened.

Digital Shadow can also assess when you are most digitally active--a prime time for vulnerability because you are connected.

But wait, it gets even better, it can estimate how much you're worth, whether you have multiple financial assets, the places you like to hang out AND even generate possible passwords to your accounts.
 
Time magazine notes that “Letting Watch Dogs scour your profile can act as a sobering reminder that the information you put on the Internet can potentially be used against you.”

You may not want to see your digital profile, but then again what do you think your psychological digital profile might say about you?  How vulnerable are you?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Is So! Is Not! Why Counterarguments Matter

When writing an argument you cannot ignore the arguments against your position.  You should seek out to identify the most obvious counterarguments and then address those objections in order to convince your readers that your position is valid.

In addition, addressing counterarguments adds ethos to your argument by showing that you have thought about other positions and aren't attempting to ignore them. 

According to Delmar.edu, "one can acknowledge and even concede a point in counterargument without directly refuting it. For example, in an argument that girls should play competitive sports you might concede a point to an alternative perspective by saying
Of course, participation in sports is not the answer for all young women. Competitive sports can be cruel -- the losing, jealousy, raw competition, and intense personal criticism of one's performance. All athletes must learn to deal with these issues.
 There are some basic rules when constructing a counterargument:
  • Acknowledge and represent accurately other interpretations
  • Grant the validity of certain opposing points, even when they support an unacceptable conclusion
  • Identify shared ground (when present)
  • Indicate where you have enlarged your views to accommodate alternatives
  • Use a respectful tone. (You defeat your purpose if you call those who oppose you "ignoramuses" or if you use belittling language.)"
Example thesis:  At least 25 percent of the federal budget should be spent on limiting pollution.
Counterargument:  While some may say that spending 25 percent of the federal budget is too high considering the many social problems we currently face in the United States, if we don't limit pollution it may cause widespread serious health problems and could lead to even more social problems like declining property values, the creation of ghettos because poor people who would be forced to live in polluted areas, and limited access to health care. 
Now you practice.  Pick one of these thesis statements and write a counterargument.

1. America's anti-pollution efforts should focus on privately owned cars.

2. Hybrid cars that use both gasoline and electricity would decrease our country's dependence on foreign oil.

3. Illegal drug use is detrimental because it encourages gang violence.

4. The habit of bullying is caused by parental neglect.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Need Some University Credit This Summer? Try a class in the Zombie Apocalypse



"Until you're actually in a catastrophe you don't know how you'd behave."  That's how Glenn Stutzky prefaces the MSU Summer 2014 class "Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse – Disasters, Catastrophes, and Human Behavior".

When I first heard about this class, I didn't give it much credence.  Another crazy pop culture class - but then again, as a teacher of comics and all things related, I had to step back.  After all Walking Dead is one great comic book series that was serialized on television.  Although, I have to say, I still wasn't convinced that the zombie apocalypse was an appropriate fit in classes on the study of human behavior.

That was before I watched the above video.

What changed my mind?  The Mt. Diablo Fire of 2013.  I had always thought of myself as one of those people who, in the face of disaster, would remain calm, cool, and collected, rescuing neighbors and pets alike.  But, no, when Mt. Diablo was engulfed in flames, I was a nervous wreck that almost passed out a number of times due to stress? Fear? Loss of control?

I actually made one of my neighbors who has over 40 horses come to my house and help me hook up my two-horse trailer.  I know I wasn't that generous - I was there.

My neighbors and I finally became trapped on our properties, having to "shelter in place" and if that fire jumped the road we would have all been B-B-Q.

So how do you think you'd behave in the face of disaster?  Have you ever faced a catastrophe and were surprised by your own behavior?  Why?  How?

You can take SW290: Selected Topics in Social Work (Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse--Disasters, Catastrophes, and Human Behavior online for course credit from Michigan State University's Summer Study Program, but you better hurry up and register, or you'll be facing a different sort of disaster.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Race and Comics

The Root recently published an article entitled Black Heroism Illustrated.  It documents the instances of black superheroes created by the comic powerhouses DC and Marvel.  Beginning with DC's Black Lightening in 1977 and Marvel's Black Panther who debuted in "Fantastic Four" no. 52 in 1966.

The article also documents the rise of African American sidekicks -- Captain America's trusted Falcon (1969) -- while interracial justice leagues began appearing in the 1970s.

The Shadow League chronicles comic stereotypes, from Harlem as the hometown of every African American superhero to the use of the descriptor "black" in superhero names; think "Black Lightning, Black Vulcan, Black Goliath, Black Racer, the Black Spider, Black Manta and so on."

The most recent addition to the black pantheon of superheroes would be Nick Fury - who apparently underwent a race change in 2002's "The Ultimates #1" -- from a white World War II army hero to, I mean let's just say it, Samuel L. Jackson.  Can you imagine anyone else being Nick Fury?  I can't, but Jackson himself was stunned.
“It was kind of weird,” Jackson said. “I just happened to be in a comic store, and I picked up the comic because I saw my face. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not sure I remember giving somebody permission to use my image.’”
The comic itself even noted the likeness in a panel in which the Ultimates discuss who would portray them in a hypothetical movie. Fury answers, “Why, Mister Samuel L. Jackson, of course. That’s not even open to debate.”
Stunned, Jackson approached Marvel.
“They were kind of like, ‘Yeah, we are planning on making movies, and we do hope you’ll be a part of them,’” Hero Complex reports.
Hope, indeed.  Thankfully, he took them up on the deal.

The Shadow League closes "Black Heroism Illustrated" by saying, "while publishers were making an active effort to court and engage black readers, their ideas regarding [black] culture were still boxed and stereotypical . . . Comic Books and race in America go hand in hand."

As a product of pop culture, comics are a reflection of our national and community beliefs.  Do you see more superheroes of color?  Who is your favorite? What franchise needs more heroes of color? What other white superhero would you like to see make a race change?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The World at your Fingertrips - FREE!

I love maps!  And the older the better.

I like looking at how the world has changed, or being reminded of places I've visited.

In my office I have a 1930's map showing the "Voyages of Discovery" with dashed lines and little galleon icons indicating the trips of Columbus, Vaso de Gama, and Magellan, a visual text sparking images of pirates, sea monsters, and exotic ports of call.

In my kitchen I have a very art deco map of "Europe in 1932" with pink and teal countries whose borders are very different than the world today. Whenever company comes and congregates in the kitchen it always sparks a conversation about places we'd love to visit.  Rome, Paris, Athens, Florence, London, Alexandria, Constantinople all great cities a world away.

Now some of these antiques are available to everyone thanks to the New York Public Library. The library has been scanning maps for about 15 years and now has "1,100 maps of the Mid-Atlantic United States and cities from the 16th to 19th centuries . . .  more than 700 topographic maps of the Austro-Hungarian empire created between 1877 and 1914 . . . an incredibly diverse collection of more than 1,000 maps of New York City, its boroughs and neighborhoods, dating from 1660 to 1922" among many other maps.

Do you like to read maps?  How has your world changed?  Where do you want to go?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Favorite Toys from Around the World

Julia, 3 (Tirana, Albania)
When my daughter was born I bought her two hefty Tonka trucks, one a grader and the other a gigantic dump truck.

I was going to make sure she had choices.  I didn't want my daughter to be conditioned to be a Barbie lovin', pink wearin', prissy little girl; she was going to play with trucks and baseballs and soccer balls and dolls and then decide what she liked best.

Well, the Tonka dump truck soon became a bassinet for her Cabbage Patch dolls and her little brother gladly traded her the grader for a plush lamb that just wasn't macho enough for him.

Are girls conditioned to want dolls?  Are boys conditioned to want trucks?  Are girls naturally attracted to more nurturing, mothering type toys, while boys want guns to go out and bring dinner home?

Henry, 5 (Berkeley, California)
An interesting book was just released called Toy Stories: Photos of Children From Around the World with Their Favorite Things by Gabrielle Galimberti.  Galimberti spent two-and-a-half years trekking through 58 countries asking children what they prized most.  I laughed at some of the photos because I recognized a few of these kids.

Take Henry from Berkeley.  I mean I have friends that live in Berkeley and yes, their little boys like trucks, planes, megatrons, dinosaurs, and snakes.  I mean, it's Berkeley, I can't tell you how many times I took my own son, the volcano freak, to the Lawrence Hall of Science.  He loved it, his sister not so much--although she thought the Planetarium was pretty cool (emphasis on pretty).

Enea, 3 (Boulder, Colorado)
On the other hand, there is Enea from Boulder, Colorado...and, yes, I also recognize him since I have a grandson who lives there...and, yes, Grandma did send him a cape (I mean who doesn't love caped superheroes), and, yes, he does attend a drumming class and I'm pretty sure I sent him a guitar for Christmas.

Then there are some really poignant photos.  The one that struck me the most was little Maudy.  She has the greatest "CHEESE" of a smile while sporting her yellow sunglasses.  This little gal's  favorite things, a box of plastic sunglasses, fell off the back of a truck.  What do you do with a box of plastic sunglasses?  She set up a market, of course, and then let the trading begin.
Maudy, 3 (Kaululushi, Zambia)

Maudy also reminds me of how much "stuff" we have in America.  I know the first trip I took to another country as a young person taught me one thing...we are so lucky.  We have clean water, toilets, doctors, and FOOD.  That's a good lesson to learn . . . go traveling young people!  But I digress . . .

Another photo that really struck me was of Pavel, a five-year-old from the Ukraine.  He was surrounded by toy guns and a Bobby helmet.  With the current state of affairs in that country, it's scary to see this anxiety trickle down to the playroom.

Here's what I noticed (at least in the few photos posted in the article) the kids whose parents had some disposable income were surrounded by what we would call gender specific toys - boys liked trucks, sports, guns while girls liked dolls and stuffed animals.  Kids that have nothing basically turned whatever they could find into toys, from sunglasses to gnarled dinosaurs.

Brainpickings states that this is a "visual catalog of the culturally conditioned imagination" which seems pretty obvious - it's hard not be conditioned by your culture unless you live in a cave all by yourself.  In spite of all our attempts to avoid culturally conditioning our children - give your daughter a truck, give your son a doll - these kids seem to gravitate towards gendered social norms, or at least they did a few years ago. 

Do you think that the current society is better able to give children freedom to pick their own toys?  Do you think that kids now don't have a need to conform to social roles through play? Would you give you daughter a truck?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hunter S. Thompson on Power


What is power?

According to Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Journalist extraordinaire, "Power is language.  Power is being able to use language.

"Power is the ability to help people.

"Power is taking risks.

"Power can be ruthless.

"Power is doing the right thing at the wrong time"

This thirty-second commercial was created for Macintosh in the 1990s when Steve "Jobs waxed lyrical about the 'crazy ones, misfits, rebels and rule breakers?' No surprise, then, that Apple decided to burnish its rebel credentials by hiring none other than the father of gonzo journalism to star in one of its TV spots."

But more than Fear and Loathing, Thompson was notorious not only for his drug-induced road trips, but also for his temper . . . and he was no techie.
According to Open Culture, "Presumably, simply having Thompson in the ad gave Apple enough countercultural cachet, since he never mentions either the company or its product. This may have been the result of previous grievances: according to legend, the journalist had received a Mac from the editors of the San Francisco Examiner in the mid-1980s, in hopes that the gadget would help him transmit his perennially late copy to the paper on time. Despite its many features, however, the Mac couldn’t stand up to Thompson’s temper (he was known to lose his cool when dealing with electronics). In a fit of rage, Thompson blew the machine to smithereens with his shotgun, and sent the remains to his editors. Power, indeed."
 But for all his quirks, Thompson answers a perennial question, "What is power?"

 How would you answer?  Education, language, position, politics, influencing behavior, making a difference . . . what kind of power do you want to exert on the world?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Introducing the Introduction

An essay introduction is just like a personal introduction . . . and yes, it is an art.  They are both a first impression and quickly determine whether you want to read a paper or engage with a person.

Let's look at seven standard types of introductions that you can use in ANY essay.  Since I have found examples to be the best teachers, let's look at seven introductory paragraphs for a single thesis statement:
Two types of students who attend college are the eighteen-year-old who just graduated from high school and the returning student who seeks a new career.
A Personal or Fictional Anecdote
As I walked into my first college class, I wondered who would be sitting to my right or left. I remember fearing that everyone would stare at me because I was an "older" student. I soon realized that while many teens were in the class, I was not the only student who had waited a number of years before seeking a college education.  Two types of students who attend college are the eighteen-year-old who just graduated from high school and the returning student who seeks a new career.

Cite A Quotation
World War I ace, Eddie Rickenbacker, once said: "Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared." If fear is necessary for courage, than many students entering the college classroom for the first time are courageous.  These students, no matter what their ages, are often fearful about the demands of college life, but they have taken the first step to overcome their anxieties by walking through the classroom door.  Two types of students who attend college are the eighteen-year-old who just graduated from high school and the returning student who seeks a new career.

Raise a Question
Do you remember what it was like the first day of your first college class?  Can you remember feeling as if every student in the class were staring at you as you made your way to your desk? Were you surprised to find in your class so many different types of students - students of various ages and backgrounds? Many of today's college classrooms feature an inter-generational student population.  Two types of students who attend college are the eighteen-year-old who just graduated from high school and the returning student who seeks a new career.

Provide Relevant Statistics
According to a recent college admissions booklet, the average age of a student at Hope Junior College is 28.3 years. The statistic shows that many students in Hope Junior College's classrooms are over the age of 30. These mature students have discovered that they need to upgrade their job skills or learn new ones if they are to complete in an increasingly technological society, so they find themselves in the the classrooms sitting next to students in their late teens and twenties.  Two types of students who attend college are the eighteen-year-old who just graduated from high school and the returning student who seeks a new career.

Give Background Information About the Topic
The job market, both nationally and internationally, is becoming increasingly competitive and technologically advanced in the twenty-first century. Many workers are finding themselves educationally under-prepared for the challenges of their jobs and are seeking to retool themselves to meet these challenges. These experienced workers are returning to the college classroom for retraining and joining those young people preparing to enter the job market for the first time. Two types of students who attend college are the eighteen-year-old who just graduated from high school and the returning student who seeks a new career.

Create an Analogy
College students walking into a classroom for the first time are like aliens leaving a spaceship and stepping forth in an unknown world. Neither the college students nor the aliens know what lies ahead. College students, no matter what their ages, are often fearful about the demands of  college life, but they have taken the first step to overcome their anxieties just by walking through the classroom door. Two types of students who attend college are the eighteen-year-old who just graduated from high school and the returning student who seeks a new career.

Challenge a Common Perception
Many people, when they think of a freshman classroom, envision row after row of eighteen-year-olds eager to begin their college experiences. These people would be surprised to discover that the average age of a college freshman at most colleges and university is well above eighteen. Men and women are coming back to the classroom after an absence of many years. Some want to to learn a new skill; others want to pursue a particular interest such as history.  Two types of students who attend college are the eighteen-year-old who just graduated from high school and the returning student who seeks a new career.

One thing to keep in mind: citations.  If you choose to use the introductions that feature a quotation, relevant statistics, or background information you may need to cite that material (thank you Diablo Valley College Learning Center for the handout this post is based on).

Which type of introduction do you routinely use?  I know for me it is the anecdote.  Pretend you are asked to write an introduction you have never used before, which would you like to try?  Why?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Synthesis, Synthesis Why Do I Care?


http://www.vidyablog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/ADgraphic-vidya.jpg
We synthesize all the time.

When you have a conversation with a friend about something your other friends have said about that certain someone, that's a synthesis.

When you are given an assignment that asks you to use "at least one quote" to support your opinion, that's a synthesis.

When you go on RateMyProfessor to find reviews of a specific professor in order to decide whether to take his or her class, that's a synthesis.

When you read or watch the news, surf the internet, or your favorite video channel, and then form a new opinion, that's a synthesis.

Every one of the posts on this blog are a synthesis.  I'm not reinventing the wheel here, I just look for articles that might interest college students, or help them understand a concept better, and then add my own "two cents", as my father would say.

But let's take a closer look at the definition of an academic synthesis from Drew University:
"Although at its most basic level a synthesis involves combining two or more summaries, synthesis writing is more difficult than it might at first appear because this combining must be done in a meaningful way and the final essay must generally be thesis-driven. In composition courses, 'synthesis' commonly refers to writing about printed texts, drawing together particular themes or traits that you observe in those texts and organizing the material from each text according to those themes or traits.
"Sometimes you may be asked to synthesize your own ideas, theory, or research with those of the texts you have been assigned. In your other college classes you'll probably find yourself synthesizing information from graphs and tables, pieces of music, and art works as well." 
Many times when you are handed an assignment you will be synthesizing ideas towards a goal--the thesis or main idea.  As you read you will gain new perspectives on the main idea, which in turn can lead you to an original way of looking at the subject or a new line of thinking (thesis), that helps you achieve better insight into your subject and a new and interesting way to approach your paper.

Say your assignment asks "How has and does the popular press portray African Americans?"As sources for the paper the professor assigns articles on Frederick Douglass and his views about how African Americans were illustrated in the popular press of his day.  You would do a synthesis directed towards Douglass' views and think about connections to portrayals of African Americans in today's press.  Along the way you come up with some fresh insight into a subject you may not have thought much about. Once you weave your own thoughts into the conversation, that's academic writing.

See how this blog post is a synthesis?  First, there were a few examples of everyday synthesis, then there was a formal definition of synthesis.  The formal definition led to how a synthesis may create better insight, and finally, there was an example of how synthesis works in college assignments.

What kinds of assignments do you receive that ask you to synthesize?  What kind of everyday synthesis sources do you use to make decisions?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Even Leonardo had to Write a Resume'

One would think that Leonardo da Vinci, the guy who invented the helicopter, created the most famous picture of man (you know the guy in the circle holding out his arms), and painted the Mona Lisa, wouldn't have to create a resume', but then one would be WRONG!  Before da Vinci was the toast of Renaissance Europe, he was a nobody, a student, just like you, and just like you he had to send out a resume' or two.

Marc Cenedella posted a translation of DaVinci's resume as follows:
“Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavor, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.

1. I have a sort of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

2. I know how, when a place is besieged, to take the water out of the trenches, and make endless variety of bridges, and covered ways and ladders, and other machines pertaining to such expeditions.

3. If, by reason of the height of the banks, or the strength of the place and its position, it is impossible, when besieging a place, to avail oneself of the plan of bombardment, I have methods for destroying every rock or other fortress, even if it were founded on a rock, etc.

4. Again, I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these I can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.

5. And if the fight should be at sea I have kinds of many machines most efficient for offense and defense; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes.

6. I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, made without noise, to reach a designated spot, even if it were needed to pass under a trench or a river.

7. I will make covered chariots, safe and unattackable, which, entering among the enemy with their artillery, there is no body of men so great but they would break them. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance.

8. In case of need I will make big guns, mortars, and light ordnance of fine and useful forms, out of the common type.

9. Where the operation of bombardment might fail, I would contrive catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other machines of marvellous efficacy and not in common use. And in short, according to the variety of cases, I can contrive various and endless means of offense and defense.

10. In times of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the composition of buildings public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.

11. I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.

Again, the bronze horse may be taken in hand, which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honor of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

And if any of the above-named things seem to anyone to be impossible or not feasible, I am most ready to make the experiment in your park, or in whatever place may please your Excellency – to whom I comment myself with the utmost humility, etc.”
What can you learn from da Vinci?  Well, one thing that Cenedella points out is how da Vinci does not just give a laundry list of what he has done.  He talks about what he can do for a specific employer, in this case the "Most Illustrious Lord."

It appears this Lord fights a lot, which da Vinci addresses, by talking about portable bridges, bombs, and artillery. But da Vinci also recognizes that life is about more than war and "In times of peace" he can "give perfect satisfaction" when creating "architecture" and "sculptures in marble, bronze, or clay."  If that isn't enough da Vinci can accomplish "painting whatever may be done."

So what is the point here?  Sales!  You have to sell yourself and you have to let a prospective employer know what you have to offer.  This is another reason why you can't just have a single resume' that you send out to every company on the planet.  By addressing specific "needs" an employer may have or want, you can stand out from the 1,000,000 other resume's that hit the HR department's in box.

How do you find out those needs?  Look on the company website.  What are their current projects?  What does the job posting ask for? Think about your dream job at your dream company and answer this:  What do you have to offer?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Bless Her Heart"

Once the kids were safely dropped off at school, this one-time stay-at-home mom had lots of opportunity to coffee klatch.  These gab fests would eventually make their way to a sentence that began with "Bless her heart." Instantly, my antennae would go up because a juicy bit of gossip was about to be revealed. A cheating husband, less-than-stellar children, or the expanding width of a rear end were all fair game if it was preceded by "Bless her heart."

What is the point of "bless her heart" and other "tee-ups"? After all, a blessing is a good thing, right? Wrong, not when it is instantly followed by some snarky comment.

Like the author of "Why Verbal Tee-Ups Often Signal Insincerity" I cringe when someone says to me "Don't take this the wrong way . . . "  I mean you know what's coming.  Professor James Pennebaker asserts these "tee-ups" are preludes to criticism and worse.
"Language experts have textbook names for these phrases—"performatives," or "qualifiers." Essentially, taken alone, they express a simple thought, such as "I am writing to say…" At first, they seem harmless, formal, maybe even polite. But coming before another statement, they often signal that bad news, or even some dishonesty on the part of the speaker, will follow.
"Politeness is another word for deception," says James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department of the University of Texas at Austin, who studies these phrases. "The point is to formalize social relations so you don't have to reveal your true self."
"'In other words, 'if you're going to lie, it's a good way to do it—because you're not really lying. So it softens the blow,' Dr. Pennebaker says.
"Of course, it's generally best not to lie, Dr. Pennebaker notes. But because these sayings so frequently signal untruth, they can be confusing even when used in a neutral context. No wonder they often lead to a breakdown in personal communications."
There is speculation about why we use "tee-ups" or those little phrases that pack a wallop and how they may be leading to some unpleasant conversations and hurt feelings.  

Has someone ever prefaced a comment to you with "I am only telling you this because I love you" or "I thought you should know" or even the dreaded, "I just want to be honest."  Hurt feelings?  You bet.
"'If you are feeling a need to use [tee-ups] a lot, then perhaps you should consider the possibility that you are saying too many unpleasant things to or about other people,' says Ellen Jovin, co-founder of Syntaxis, a communication-skills training firm in New York. She considers some tee-up phrases to be worse than others. 'Don't take this the wrong way…' is 'ungracious,' she says. 'It is a doomed attempt to evade the consequences of a comment.'" 
But I bet there are "tee-ups" this author missed.  After all, he's a college professor, not a college student.  What kind of "tee-ups" make you cringe?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

DWYL - Do What You Love

It may be hard to see in this home/work space, but there it is a cute little picture proclaiming "Do What You Love" next to another cute little graphic "Love What You Do."

We've all heard this phrase, but at Jacobin an article entitled "In the Name of Love" claims that
"There’s little doubt that 'do what you love' (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers."
After all, we're not all Bill Gates building computers in our garage.

Is DWYL just a bit of self-aggrandizing fluff?

Jacobin makes a good point when saying, "By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it."

Jacobin uses the example of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, the creator of all those gadgets we can't live without today.  In his 2005 commencement speech for Stanford graduates he advised them that
"You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do."
But as Jacobin so aptly points out "Jobs elided the labor of untold thousands in Apple’s factories, conveniently hidden from sight on the other side of the planet — the very labor that allowed Jobs to actualize his love."

Jacobin futher claims that the idea of DWYL divides workers.
"Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.
"For those forced into unlovable work, it’s a different story. Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love (which is, in fact, most labor) is not only demeaned but erased."
This article goes on to talk about academia and how professors are all contract laborers because most of us are part-timers and the plight of the poor intern who gets paid nothing, but is doing what you love really just for the privileged few?

The longer I teach the more I hear students say that their chosen career path isn't in something they love, but in something that will earn them "bank".

So why did you choose your career path?  Love?  Money? Or something else?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Vindicated. Finally!

Reading Twilight, Harry Potter (take that Harold Bloom), Hunger Games, and Watchmen, for that matter, will improve your brain.

Don't believe me? Let's ask the experts.
ABC News is reporting that scientists are using some of their most sophisticated tools to peer inside the human brain to see what happens when we engage in the process of reading, and they are finding a number of surprises:
-- Reading is a very complex task that requires several different regions of the brain to work together.

-- But surprisingly, we don't use the same neural circuits to read as we grow from infants to adults. So our brains are constantly changing throughout our lives.

-- It appears possible that reading can improve the "connectivity" between the various brain circuits that are essential to understanding the written word.

-- And there is recent evidence that simply reading a good novel can keep that enhanced "connectivity" working for days, and possibly longer, after we have finished the book.
What? Read a novel and enhance your brain function?  Yup, that's what they're saying. "Reading is not just one of the talents we were born with, like seeing and hearing. It is a 'recent cultural invention,' as one researcher put it. Just a few thousand years ago, some creative human probably carved the first symbol in the wall of a cave, launching his followers on a rich, new adventure -- reading."

Over at Emory University scientists put 21 students through an MRI for 30 minutes a day for 19 days while they were reading. "The scanner revealed a sharp spike in two neural networks after the first chapter, and that continued throughout the rest of the experiment, including the five days after the reading was over."  So the students' brains kept functioning on "high" even days after they finished the reading.

I bet many of you already knew this . . . What was the last novel you read?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Reading Visuals: Infographics

My students often look at me like I'm crazy when I assign readings about reading visuals.  We don't just read written texts anymore...we read television, YouTube, graphic essays, and infographics.  In this visual-laden society, being able to read a graphic is a required skill.  As a teacher, a good visual in an otherwise excruciatingly dull (sorry, but you all know what I mean) essay can often make me drop my red pen for a moment or two.  And it appears, I am not alone.

Over at Brain Pickings they published an article entitled "How to be an Educated Consumer of Infographics:  David Bryne on the Art-Science of Visual Storytelling" and I just couldn't resist another blog post about visuals....I got The Best American Infographics of 2013 as a Christmas present and devoured it in one afternoon.  According to Bryne, of Talking Heads fame,
The very best [infographics] engender and facilitate an insight by visual means — allow us to grasp some relationship quickly and easily that otherwise would take many pages and illustrations and tables to convey. Insight seems to happen most often when data sets are crossed in the design of the piece — when we can quickly see the effects on something over time, for example, or view how factors like income, race, geography, or diet might affect other data. When that happens, there’s an instant “Aha!”…
The point about allowing us to grasp a relationship quickly and easily is why I love visuals (infographic, comic, painting, photograph, television, etc. etc.).  It just seems like you get to skip a step when you read an infographic.

But as Bryne reminds us, just like written text, there are a lot of bad infographics out there.  So it is important that we learn how to read visuals just like we would any other text.
One would hope that we could educate ourselves to be able to spot the evil infographics that are being used to manipulate us, or that are being used to hide important patterns and information. Ideally, an educated consumer of infographics might develop some sort of infographic bullshit detector that would beep when told how the trickle-down economic effect justifies fracking, for example. It’s not easy, as one can be seduced relatively easily by colors, diagrams and funny writing.
"Should I Check my E-mail?" is my favorite infographic from the article. As a writer, I can be one heck of a procrastinator and since I'm already on my computer, there's no greater time waster (errr, I mean, important task) then checking all my email accounts (personal and professional), Facebook, YouTube suggestions that I may like, OH, and whatever cute kitten video is purring its way around the internet AND reading all the articles, newsletters, geek trivia and pictures that are in my in-box.

But back to infographics...Some of the infographics featured in The Best American Infographics of 2013 are just plain beautiful.  Go check out "Paths Through New York City"--paths that appear to be veins in a leaf leading one through an otherwise concrete world--really stunning.

So as you write your next text - take pity on your reader and create a really stunning infographic.  I'm talking especially to you, science majors, don't just create some dull pie chart for your professor.

What kind of information could you visualize for your next paper?