The Wonderful World of Wordle

Wordle.net is a very curious little website. The website describes itself as, “a toy for generating ‘word clouds’ from text [the user] provide[s].” That is pretty much the only way to describe Wordle that I can think of. Alright, not necessarily the best, because not everyone knows what a word cloud is, but it is certainly good for a short description. Wordle lets anyone input text in a box and it will churn out an image of all the words arranged in a picture, such as the one provided :

The US Constitution in Wordle. Taken from the Wordle.net home page.

Working Wordle is actually very simple. The home page provides a short description and puts a link right in front of the user telling the user to create their own Wordle image. The interface in the creation page is fairly simple. There are three boxes that use can put text into. The top one lets the user type in whatever he wants. The second lets the user provide a link to a blog (well any website URL will do but they recommend a blog URl). The third allows you to put in a del.icio.us username and it will create a Wordle image of their tags. After providing whatever text the user wants, they can click the button to create a Worlde. They are then provided an image and limited ways to alter the image. The user can change the color of the words and background, the font or the text layout. The user can also change around the language setting for their image. Unfortunately, I do not really know any other languages so I just kept the default English settings.

The opening monologue from the video game Fallout 3. Image created by me using a custom color palate.

Publishing and copying images is a mixed bag. For those with a blog or website, Wordle.net is very willing to give you the link and even generates the HTML code for you to just copy and paste into your blog. If you want to save the image to your hard drive though, or if you are like me and are just too stupid to use the HTML code, you have to go through a more roundabout process. The website’s FAQ tells you that in order to save an image, you will have to use a screen capture and save it that way. It is kind of a hassle, but fortunately the FAQ is rather helpful with the process.

Speaking of which, the FAQ for the site is very useful. I do not know just how helpful the troubleshooting section is, because I did not have many problems that needed to be troubleshot, but there are some useful tidbits to be found there. One example is that the more times one word appears in a text block, the larger it is going to be in the image. So if you put, “gold gold gold silver silver copper” in the text box when you create your image, the copper is going to the smallest word, the silver is going to be twice as big as the copper and the gold is going to be three times as big as the copper. Another useful tip is that you can use a tilde(~) between words keep them together when the image is generated, and Wordle will replace the tilde with a space.

The FAQ also answers some questions on what you can and cannot do with a Wordle. The creator allows for you to copy and paste your Wordles and use and sell your creations freely. The site is fairly open. The only problem is with the code. Apparently the creator, Jonathan Feinberg, created the code for Wordle.net while working at IBM, and his contract stipulates everything created on company time belongs to the company. So Wordle belongs to IBM.

The are a couple of issues with Wordle that stands out in my mind. The biggest that stands out for me is that Wordle has a very short memory of the images it generates. What I mean is that every time I change tabs with a new image open that I forgot to save, for some reason Wordle loses the image. I do not know if this is a problem with my browser (Safari) or a problem with the website itself. I find it hard to complain to much though because that is a negligible problem that can probably be avoided rather easily and images are often easy to recreate. Also, the site does not appear to have that problem is you change windows, so you can just create your images in a separate window and do not open a new tab in that window.

Wordle is a very simple, very easy to use toy. It is very approachable for anyone who wants to try it. The only real problem that I could see is that I cannot figure out a point to it. I sit in front of my computer screen for a couple of minutes, put something into the text box, edit it a little. I now have a nice little picture and all I can say is, “Now what?” My roommate suggested that it might be useful for advertising. I could see that, but I am personally a little put off by it from a design perspective, so I am probably going to approach that suggestion with caution. It is, for me, a toy. Something you play around with for a couple of minutes, maybe return to once or twice, share it with your friends, and forget about it. There is a rather large gallery of images created by users, so you can see what other people did with it. It is interesting and easy to use, but at the end of the day lacking any real function.

David Bowie's Suffragette City. Image by me.
Hamlet's soliloquy. Image by Anonymous.

Voyeur: A Text Analysis Tool

Voyeur is a free online text analysis tool that is being constructed as part of the Hermeneuti.ca project. On their site, creators Stefan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell define Hermeneuti.ca as a way to “think through some foundations of contemporary text analysis, including issues related to the electronic texts used, the tools and methodologies available, and the various forms that can take the expression of results from text analysis.”

Voyeur works well with the overall mission of the Hermeneuti.ca project because it allows users to explore the potential use of text analysis in a free and somewhat user- friendly space. In order to use the program, users simply enter or upload a text into the white box on the main page and then click the reveal button. Once the text has been “revealed” users can learn useful information such as how many times a word has been used, the distribution of the use of that word, the vocabulary density of a document, and the number of distinctive words used. Furthermore, when you click the small arrow at the bottom left of the screen; it will also show you word trends and your keywords in context. One of the more useful components of Voyeur is that it allows researchers to analyze both a corpus of documents or individual sources.

In order to demonstrate the full usefulness of the program, the site contains a helpful article “Now Analyze That” that demonstrates how researchers used Voyeur to analyze speeches made on race by Barack Obama and Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. They used the program to identify each speaker’s political priorities and overall views of race relations. Examples such as this help researchers new to text analysis learn how to effectively use this research tool.

Because the program quickly counts how many times a word is used within a given text, I found Voyeur to have the most potential for historians interested in using quantitative analysis to study rhetoric in texts. For example, as a historian interested in gender, I could use Voyeur to scan a primary source and see how many times and where gendered language appears in a text. I could then use this information to see how gendered language is used in that particular text to create concepts of masculinity and femininity. While historians of gender have long sorted through sources for evidence of gendered language, Voyeur can now allow us to do it in a much quicker and more efficient way. Furthermore, Voyeur’s ability to search multiple documents at a time provides historians with a convenient tool for analyzing specific themes within a group of documents.

While Voyeur is still under construction, I found the site to have much potential for researchers. Although I did have some trouble navigating all the tools of the program at first, the site as whole offered a plentiful (sometimes overwhelming) amount of tutorials and articles that help novices to text analysis find their way. Furthermore, while going through this site, I particularly learned how digital media sites such as this one, can both change how historians look at sources and expose scholars to new forms of research.

If you use text analysis in your research do you find this program helpful? How do programs such as this change the way the historian researches? How can Voyeur be used to help us find new themes within documents?

Visualizing Your Data With IBM’s Many Eyes

Many Eyes is a powerful tool that enables a user to create visualizations from any kind of data set.

Here’s where it gets fun: while a user can upload their own data set, Many Eyes is a community-powered tool. There are over 150,000 data sets to choose from, and many are pre-visualized.

Another (seemingly underused) feature are Topic Centers. Topic Centers allow teams of people to collaborate on visualizations. Topic Centers are organized around certain topics (makes sense, right?), as well as teams of people at organizations and classes (like this one).

Here are some examples:

Average Time Spent Commuting by State Many Eyes
Average Time Spent Commuting by State

Number of arrests by age and type of crime Many Eyes
Number of arrests by age and type of crime

News Blogs Dominated By A Few Startups Many Eyes
News Blogs Dominated By A Few Startups

But selecting a dataset from the community is not always the best option: the metadata associated with many of the datasets is inaccurate or incomplete. Rest assured, because what makes Many Eyes such a versatile tool is that any type of data is accepted, so long as it is in a structured format. Data needs to be pre-formatted in Microsoft Excel (or similar spreadsheet software), then pasted into Many Eyes’ Web interface.

Then the user is presented with an array of visualization options, from tag clouds and word trees to assorted graphs and even maps.

A couple of potential uses for historians:

  • Take a historical text or speech (i.e. the Gettysburg Address) and create a tag cloud from it, where the more frequently a word is used, the larger it will appear.
  • Create a network diagram to visualize a historical figure’s family tree.
  • Use a map to show population trends over time.

Over the summer, I took air traffic control data and visualized it using Many Eyes, for fun. It was easy to use every step of the way. In fact, it’s so easy to use, the hardest part should be finding the data in the first place.

It is beyond imperative to have good visuals when working on the Web, since readers hate long blocks of static text. Bringing a history project to the Web calls for the use of visualizations like those that can be generated using Many Eyes. It will make your work more attractive, and will certainly help your readers understand things better. At the end of the day, it’s all about them!

project idea: Wandering the Wastes: Fallout and Imagery of Nuclear War

Video games, like movies serve as cultural measuring sticks.  Because they are primarily visual media they tend to be packed with culturally significant imagery.  During the past two decades, historians have begun unpacking and examining the images within film as a way of understanding the collective societal fears, pressures, and desires they draw upon.  Very little work, however, has been done on video games as a medium capable of transmitting the same ideas.  This is due largely to two reasons.  First, it is only in the very recent past that video games became sophisticated enough that such ideas could be transmitted.  Second, video games are not considered a mature enough medium.  Many mainstream voices consider them to be along the same lines as an electronic toy, rather than a place for artistic expression.

Recent games are both visually striking and artistically relevant.  The Fallout series, including its latest iteration Fallout 3 serves as a cultural measuring stick in much the same way as cinema of the past half century.  Because Fallout deals with nuclear war, and seeks to portray a post-nuclear landscape in which the player must survive, it is possible to unpack the imagery of Fallout and learn how Americans, especially American children learn about and experience the possibility of nuclear war.

Among the important ideas in Falllout’s portrayal of nuclear war is the wasteland concept.  A landscape of death in which green flora is almost non-existent and fauna is gigantic and hostile to humanity.  The idea of a death landscape is a relatively new concept in the history of nuclear war culture.  Prior iterations of a post-nuclear world such as On the Beach, Alas Babylon, and Canticle for Lebowitz written in the 1950s and 60s do not feature a dead landscape.  Rather, they feature a living world in which humanity is either entirely removed or greatly reduced in technology and numbers.  The  landscape of death, however, has become one of the most dominant tropes of nuclear war culture in the last twenty years, with more modern movies such as Terminator, The Book of Eli, and The Road relying heavily on this concept.  This is an idea that I would like to explore in more detail.

Giant creatures has been, conversely, a popular and longstanding idea within nuclear war imagery.  The idea that radiation creates monsters was the topic of a number of films from the 1950s and even late 1940s.  Films like Them!, The Beginning or the End, and The Amazing Colossal Man each personified the threat of radiation to humanity.  In Fallout, this tradition is preserved in its Radroaches, Radscorpions and Super mutants.

Another important facet of Fallout is the persistence of Civil Defense culture in the idea of nuclear war.  This takes two forms within the game, first in the dark irony of educational filmstrips such as “Bert the Turtle” and second in the Shelter Culture of the mid to late 1950s.  One of the key elements of the Fallout universe is the Vault, a government sponsored corporate enterprise to build gigantic self-sustaining fallout shelters in case of nuclear war.  These Vaults, and their sinister true purpose plays heavily in the game.  Yet while shelter culture was present in the 1950s, Fallout’s portrayal of it is far from its original form.  Shelter culture portrayed in Fallout and in fact the entirety of 50s culture in the game is not an accurate reflection of the time, but rather a 21st Century American interpretation of it.  Thus Fallout can be used as a measure of nostalgia, the attempt to recreate an idealized version of a past event.

In writing this paper I would draw on recent studies of science fiction cinema, as well as the historiography of Cold War culture.  The tools of cinema can be applied to video games with some modification.  Games are player driven experiences, which leaves the creators less control over the experience.  Thus Fallout 3 is a game peppered with references that not every player will experience equally.  Yet the overall appearance of Fallout’s wasteland, the creatures within it, and the dark humor that pervades the game have been universally commented on in reviews.  Understanding the cultural significance of Fallout is a way of measuring how the shadow of nuclear war continues to intrude on our culture a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

No Class Tonight

Everyone should have gotten emails from the university. Class is canceled for the evening.

We will keep to the schedule. So everyone should read next weeks readings and blog if you are signed up to blog. We will just condense the two weeks discussions together.