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Category Archives: art & math

I’ve created two (VERY) simple semantic visualizations based on a search for terms defined as positive or negative. I was originally planning on dynamically generating word lists using WordNet or some other dictionary api. However, good-old has a much wider and deeper word well (including returns from WordNet). I looked into programatically parsing the returned url (which I may eventually do), but for now have generated the word lists manually (I know, I know, this is admitting some defeat). The visualizations plot a linear and then radial gradient based on lines containing the pos or neg terms. I keep track of the number of pos/neg terms, should a line contain multiple terms (some do). Each line (or concentric ring) overlaps its neighbors and is translucent, allowing some optical color mixing. Arbitrarily– red is pos and blue is neg. The gray is neutral.


Linear Visualization

Radial Visualization

The next visualization (yes, yes it’s a day late) plots an array of protobits (pixels) based on all the characters in the poem (including spaces). The syntactic elements are the colored pixels in their actual location in the poem. The poem is read (so to speak) by an arthropod-esque bot that moves across the characters. The arthropod’s motion is affected by the respective syntactic elements it crosses. Any characters the arthropod head touches are displayed in the bottom right of the window. The syntactic elements are also displayed in the center and remain there until the next element is reached. The arthropod, built as a series of interconnected springs, is a metaphor for the stream of reading that is affected by syntax, as well as its own inertia.

Link to syntactic visualization

I created my first visualization today for the project. Keeping things simple I plotted word usage count as a particle graph. (I also settled on the term protoBits).

Link to Visualization

My process: All the words in the poem were sorted alphabetically, and duplicate words were counted. I plotted the unique words along the x-axis and the duplicate words along the y-axis. Each particle initially occupies a unique position, but to keep things more interesting I made them dynamic and added a random jitter to their x-position upon impact with the ground. Although there is acceleration along the y-axis, there is no gravity/friction–so the system never stabilizes. Moving the mouse over a particle reveals the word plotted. The higher particle columns represent the more common words. Particles turn orange once they’ve been rolled over.

My goal will be to try to create a unique visualization (of increasing complexity) each day leading up to the conference, (so please stop by tomorrow 😉 )

I’ve been able to get the WordNet API integrated into a simple Java app. One amusing side-note is that I got stuck for a day trying to get the WordNet .jar file to run in my Java app. After spending a few hours of unsuccessful Googling, I picked up my own book, in which I explained (to myself) how to solve the problem. So what I thought originally would be the more time consuming and challenging parts of the project–parsing and semantic relationships–have been (at least initially) fairly straightforward. The larger challenge that looms before me is what the heck I’m going to do with all this data.

The problem is not actually what to do, but rather what to do in the next 2 weeks, prior to MLA. I wish I could just explore this material without the burden of deadline. This was supposed to be how I was going to spend my sabbatical this fall–yeah, right!

My thoughts about the visualization process today are to begin with single cell creatures and work my way up. I’ve been thinking about a name for these fundamental organisms: microbots, micro-protobytes, microbytes, protobits, protobots. My thought for these initial creatures is single pixels that bounce in 1 dimension: distance = word usage. I know this is fairly boring, but I feel like I need to begin simply and fundamentally. I will post a few Processing sketches of these initial tests next.

Laura lent me The Visual Mind: Art and Mathematics (1995), which I’ve been thumbing through, in between struggling to develop a homespun 3D engine for my book. I’ve been working on the same stupid back face culling problem for what seems like 2 weeks now, and well, I’m not feeling too much love for my a-analytical brain lately. (Perhaps the problem could be due to a faulty basal ganglia).
I think the book (The Visual Mind, not mine) is significant as an historical landmark, documenting a relatively early period of development in computer graphics. I don’t think the book actually deals very much with art and mathematics though. The book does deal with interesting mathematical ideas and the problems (especially pre-CGI) of visualizing them, and it presents the math in an inspiring way, which is, I guess, its connection to art. However, I’d challenge the idea that a beautiful bronze cast of some 4D math function is a synthesis of math and art. Rather, I’d place the work solidly within mathematics, its “newness” perhaps extending the rendering/drafting medium (pencil, compass…casting, graphing calculator, etc) I don’t mean to devalue the beautiful works discussed in the book, generated by equally beautiful mathematical ideas. But, I think the rational framework underlying the work/process imposes itself too pragmatically–precluding the process from getting too “out of control” for unexpected a-rational “stuff” to be found.
I think a true fusion between math and art would lead to work that wouldn’t necessarily illustrate the math/art connection, or at least not as didactically as many of the book’s examples. Some good arguments could be made for the contemplative and aesthetic aspects of the processes/works in the book as justification for their signification as “Art”. However, I would argue back (not too forcefully) that the term “craft” encompasses notions of both the contemplative and aesthetic. For mathematical work to approach art, for me, it needs to transcend the rational. I think Escher, albeit very didactically, illustrated this in his work. It is the impossibility of his seemingly mathematically created and precise worlds that is fascinating (beautiful.) Of course many artists throughout history have created transcendent mathematically inspired/based art: Piero Della Francesca’s Resurrection immediately comes to mind. I remember seeing the piece in Sansepolcro and being overwhelmed, and I assure you I wasn’t thinking about perspective or any other mathematical idea at the time. The raw human emotional drama of the piece subsumed any of the (not trivial) math underlying it.
Ironically, it seems through the development of powerful applied mathematical tools (computation) that new math/art integration struggles ensue, which will make another interesting thing to consider in a future post (preferably not by me.)
Back to obsessing about my basal ganglia.