Friday, May 30, 2008

My "Homopholganger"

Huzzah! Today is the sixth year this website has been online! If I remember correctly, I posted everything online while the Lakers were in the playoffs about to go to the championships... and lo and behold the past is repeating! (yes, I'm a Laker fan... which will certainly be interesting living in Boston as they move on to play the Celtics in the Finals)

So, here's a semi-research-related story to commemorate the occasion. The Tufts Psych department (to which I'm a grad student) is hosting a conference this weekend, and one of the featured speakers is a psychologist named...Neal Cohen! (no relation)

Naturally, I thought it would be hilarious and awkward to meet him. The first day of the conference I had turned it into a scavenger hunt, with several faculty and other grad students all on the lookout for him. We came up with a great portmanteau word to describe someone who shares the same name as you: your "homopholganger." By the time I arrived Friday, I was getting asked over and over if I'd met him yet.

I actually did end up talking to him shortly after his own presentation, and hilarity ensued! Even cooler, I started making connections between some of his work on the hippocampus to things I'm finding in visual grammar. Naturally, I proposed a collaboration... He thought the ideas were pretty cool, so, who knows, perhaps in the next few years we'll see the fantastic byline: By Neil Cohn and Neal Cohen.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Random!... panel sequences that is

As long as we're on the topic of comics that people clip out for me, here's another one that my advisor passed along. For some reason, he's rather partial to Zippy the Pinhead (I think because of the philosophy jokes), and this one caught his eye. Particularly this first panel over to the side.

Zippy it seems comes from the Non-sequitur school of panel transitions (if you're into that sort of thing).

What makes this fun for me is that my next experiment is actually going to use various scrambled strips to help illustrate the differences in processing between those and normal strips (plus some other more complex strip types).

Not much is out there about this sort of research, but one study did show that people's comprehension of sequential "picture stories" (Mercer Mayer stories) correlated with their comprehension for text. Skilled readers showed a drop in recollection for scrambled compared to regular sequences. However, unskilled readers showed no comprehension differences at all.

I'm a bit dubious that fluency in visual language is comparable to general comprehension skills (they used no measure for graphic fluency), but this study at least showed some support for a domain general capacity.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Rory Root, we'll miss you

I learned to great shock and sorrow this morning that Rory Root, owner and operator of Comic Relief in Berkeley, has passed away. Rory was a phenomenal presence in the comic industry, and I remember fondly being first introduced to him by Beau Smith as having "the best comic store anywhere" when I was still working for TMP at the ComicCon as a teenager. When Beau discovered I was going to go to college at UC Berkeley, he made sure I knew Rory before going.

During my time at Berkeley, Rory was always interesting and encouraging, especially when I began my greater foray into theory. His was the first store that carried my Early Writings on Visual Language book on theory, and always made sure I did booksignings with them at ComicCon.

Rory once took me to lunch on the auspices of giving advice for future bookselling. He was always quick to introduce me to people he thought might give me good exposure, one time unexpectedly taking one of my books out of my hands to give to a blogger saying "Trust me, this will be good publicity." (He was right)

He was a fixture in this industry, and a wonderful friend and benefactor. He will be greatly missed.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Split planes

I haven't gotten a newspaper at home in years, but every now and then my father sends me clippings of comics or articles. The comic that he seems to send the most is Pearls Before Swine which has a periodic flair for formalism.

In the last set that he sent, the characters do a fair amount of walking on the borders of the panels (Here, Here, and Here):

"Awareness" of panel borders by characters within them is nothing new, but doing so it reveals that there are two levels of representations in this visual language of comics. There is a "Representational Plane" (RP) that the content exists in, and a "Framing Plane" (FP) that holds things like panel borders and balloons/bubbles/text boxes. Usually, the Framing Plane just lies "outside" the RP, but instances like these collapse the layers together. (see linked essay below for illustrations of this)

Another hint that these two layers exist comes from the fact that text carriers can become panels, as I discussed in my article on "Loopy Framing":

This commonality between their forms — that they both encapsulate information, both are not part of the image matter but can be interacted with in a "meta" way — go towards their being two aspects of a singular plane of Framing.

Note: For those more interested, I discuss this more extensively in my paper Interactions and Interfaces.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On PowerPoint

I was recently asked by the VizThink people to devote a post to the prompt: PowerPoint: A powerful tool poorly used or a poor tool overused?, so... here goes...

I do think that PowerPoint** can be a powerful tool that is misused, but its functions and autofills can also be overused. In many ways this is not the fault of the program, but the fault of the users for relying on the program to guide their presentations and thinking. (though, perhaps some blame should go to the programmers who design it to serve that purpose)

At its heart, the program is just a slide show. Its key function is to show slides one at a time after each other. Everything else is just bells and whistles. That potential is extremely powerful, but it can be misused. The choice of what to put on those slides makes all the difference. This is a reflection of the user — and their own abilities for storytelling, narrative, etc.

When slides are used as an alternative to substantial speaking they become a hinderance: Cramming too much information on a slide. Presenting information that people will be forced to digest at the same time as trying to follow your speech. Seeing the presentation as a rigid path not allowing the free form creativity of writing on a blackboard.

From my experience, slides should be used like gestures. Co-speech gesture occurs at a rate of roughly one gesture per clause, and usually elaborates upon some aspect of speech often adding a spatial dimension to it. It isn't something separate that happens to go with speech though — it expresses an integral and complementary part of the conceptualization that also goes into verbal expression.

Another analogy more pertinent to this blog (and one I discuss in this podcast), is that slides should serve the equivalent of a "panel." The slide is the image content of a panel, while your speech is like the text. The biggest difference between the two is the temporal quality of presenting them — otherwise they serve largely the same function.

Not all use of slide shows need to be clipped and truncated as the Powerpoint Gettysburg suggests. You can still have beautiful and powerful oration using slides — but it should not depend on the slides. Rather, the slides let speech be more than just sounds. It has to be a multimodal expression, where both slides and speech work in concert with each other to achieve something more. The ability to do this, I would suspect, is cognitively the same whether it's done in print or on a screen.

PowerPoint is not a substitute for lack of narrative skills, and its problems can largely be fingered for forgetting or believing that (whether as a user or a programmer). Excel can't make you a powerful statistician. Word won't make you a good writer. Why should we expect that PowerPoint is to blame for poor presentations?

**My personal preference is actually Keynote. I'm going to treat this as just a discussion of slide show programs in general. If we're targeting PowerPoint specifically, then you can amp up my dislike of the autofills, etc.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

CogSci Comics

I am currently in the refractory period of the semester, enjoying the freedom of summer break starting and the ability to work on all those projects I usually don't get around to doing during the school year. I've now plotted out at least three papers I plan to write, plus a visual language class syllabus to refine.

I should have some more substantial blogging to do soon, but in the meantime, here's some goofy random comics related to cognitive science and linguistics:

Signifier vs. the Signified

Gava Guy

Cog Sci Supers!

Please feel free to post more as you find them... Enjoy!

Monday, May 05, 2008


I've been ridiculously too busy to blog lately, largely due to my upcoming exam/project on biopsychology. Once that's over it's summertime! (i.e. time for me to work on projects otherwise not given enough attention while in classes). In the meantime...

Here's an interesting site that attempts to show the relative sizes of things in the universe. I like how its using digital tools to get at visualizing otherwise hard to conceive of things. In some respects it serves as an "Infinite Canvas" in McCloud's sense. (Beware has sound)