October 15th, 2005

rock shadow

"So what?"

I got my project proposal for my social psychology class back today with less-than-glowing comments. I was hoping to carve off a piece of my ongoing research on photography and cameraphones, and proposed studying the ways in which people create identities (e.g. through constructed memories and self-representation) with photographs, narrowing my scope to those online for the purposes of a semester project. The professor responded with, "I don't think I buy 'online photo-sharing identities' as something of sociological interest. I'd encourage you not to do this project. If, however, you are really sold on it, come to my office hours and try to sell it to me." At first, I felt devastated. Why wasn't it interesting? I thought it was interesting ... I was even thinking of expand it into a master's thesis next semester. The fact that I'm getting some "so what" responses from both sides - technological and social - worries me and eats away at my self-esteem. And I just don't know enough about the fields of social psychology or science and technology studies to effectively justify my work to those audiences. But then I thought about the readings of the course, many of whose themes focused on various forms of racial and gender discrimination. Is that what he's expecting? What does he mean by "something of sociological interest?" So it's my plan to review the readings this weekend and try to formulate a rejoinder for office hours next week, and a few questions for him. We'll see how it goes.

In the late afternoon I practiced ballroom for a couple of hours. Practices the last couple of weeks have been really good - we have some new choreography and I feel like we're making headway on some technique issues our coaches have been mentioning for a while now. Tomorrow night we're competing in the Autumn Classic at the Cathedral Hill Hotel in SF, if anyone's interested. :~)
rock shadow

Martin Wattenberg

Wednesday was an inspiring day, though it was marred slightly by a friend's mysterious snub and yet another bout of late-afternoon lethargy and headachiness. (Damn sleep problems.) Martin Wattenberg, an artist and a researcher at IBM Watson, gave not one, not two, but three talks at SIMS: first for my information visualization class, then for a small group of students, then for the SIMS Distinguished Lecture Series.

I knew him for the baby name visualizer which he originally designed to help publicize his wife's baby names book, though its audience grew far beyond what he originally imagined. He tracked its uses by Googling for it and reading all of the blog entries and other references on it, and found that bloggers were treating it like a game, setting data-mining challenges for themselves. They roughly fell into the same categories that MUD users did: achievers, who were actually looking for baby names; explorers, who looked for quirks in the data such as I, O, ETH, LAT; socializers, who related the visualization to their own lives and used it as a conversation piece; and killers, who used it to make fun of names they thought were stupid. Because the system was interactive and playful and discoveries could be replicated easily, people could easily be drawn deeply into the data. Also, everyone had a fairly distinctive starting point - often their own name - which meant that the data set got a lot of coverage.

But his visualizations are far more numerous than just that one. Collapse )Collapse ) Of course, many of us wanted to know how he had gotten into doing visualizations like these (and by extension, how we could too). He got a math degree at Berkeley, though he had been doing design in high school. He worked for a financial company and did artistic designs on the side, sandwiched between his work and his home life. Even now, he has to make time to do the artistic installations outside of work, which makes for a stressful existence at times. He told us to take advantage of the time we had now in school and experiment, though he admits that when he was in school, he probably would have scoffed at such at suggestion. (At least when you have a job, you generally have your evenings and weekends free!) Between his talk and Mirrormask, I feel freshly inspired to continue my dabblings in art and design - it makes me feel so alive.


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