Monday, November 3, 2008

Hypermedia: Post Project Creativity Debrief

Orders from on high demanded that this week we take on whatever role we've managed to avoid up til now. For me, that was the role of coding. I can't speak for the others, but for me this is the position I'm least happy in: not so much because I don't enjoy code--I do, at times--but because I don't like being in a position without creative control. So this was for me a week to sit back, say nothing, and do my best to bring the others' vision to life in a working prototype. This is, of course, as natural to me as riding a bike, which is perhaps only a funny statement if you know me well enough to know I never learned how to do that either.

What I find really interesting about the results of this particular collaboration is how much it reveals of our individual styles. We assembled on our main page a sampling of our own individual projects along with profiles discussing our backgrounds and creative intentions. We also have a page with images from the previous collaborative projects and a discussion of each. Looking at the individual set next to the collaborative seems to reveal our roles and influences just as plainly as when we come out and say it. Of course, I might be biased, since I spent a couple of hours surrounded by those images getting the site together and coded.

I find this really interesting thanks to my minor obsession with the idea of creativity. I'm immersed in a creative writing workshop every week taken online through my other university and I constantly marvel at how we all--yes, myself included, or why would I take it at all--buy into the notion that creativity is something that can be workshopped. The only way I've ever found to feel like I'm a "creative person"--whatever that is--is to read so many things that I can at least be sure that whatever I'm spouting comes from digesting as many ideas as I could fit in my head. My mother occasionally said that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but they also didn't keep any apples in the house, only books, and I find that those go down much better on a daily basis than any fruit not blended into drink form.

So that takes me in a roundabout way back to my point: what is at the root of divergences in creativity? Why do some of us think in grids and others in colliding bubbles? For that matter, why do some of us see in grids and others in bubbles?

Thankfully for me, I have no qualms at all about not answering that question with anything but a list of the books I believe answer that question better than I ever could--without, of course, ever answering the question at all. First up, Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which I revisited while thinking about the first group project. Queneau was on the frontier of stretching language to its limits when he was writing in 1940ish, and he somehow still seems to be on the frontier when I read it again today. How on earth is that possible? Maybe for the same reason most people don't read Finnegans Wake: it stretched the idea of what a novel could be so much that no one has really felt the need to venture out that way again. (My web domain, by the way, comes from a Wake quote: "Where flash becomes word and silents selfloud"--which offers another stretch on the way we think about language. Just don't mention that to the Joyce estate, they've gotten rather touchy these days.)

And one last book I open whenever I need a different way to think about a design, or a writing project, or a research question, or a writing desk for that matter--Alice in Wonderland. Oh yes, it's cliche, but such a glorious cliche! Perhaps we all need a trip down the rabbit's hole now and again.

So a question back at the metaverse, or up the rabbit hole, or through the void: choose your own metaphor. What do you read when you think on creating?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Hello, Mary

The text for the (very, very) silly story, and evidence of what happens when I try to write a picture book text in a day:

Hello Mary!

Sarah stood in the bathroom. The light was off. The big mirror was in front of her. She could not even see her face in its shiny surface. She’d heard her brother talking. She’d heard him say how to call the ghost. The room was dark. She was ready.
“Hello Mary.” Sarah whispered. The mirror was dark.
“Hello Mary.” Sarah said again, and again. The mirror was empty.
“Hello Mary.” Sarah said again. Her brother had told her to say it thirteen times. Had he lied to her? She still saw nothing.
“Hello Mary!” She almost shouted the words the thirteenth time.
A face appeared in the mirror! A big black pointy hat sat over glowing eyes.
“Hello Sarah.”
Sarah shrieked. She knew who that was. A witch! Sarah ran out of the bathroom.
“Mommy, mommy, there’s a witch in the mirror!”
Mommy came running. “Don’t be scared, Sarah. Mirrors only show your reflection.”
“But I saw her!”
“You’ve been listening to your brother’s Halloween stories, haven’t you?” Mommy sighed. “There’s no witch in the mirror.”
Sarah’s big brother Bobby was right behind her Mommy. He laughed at her. “You saw Bloody Mary! She takes people’s faces from them. You’re going to wake up without a face!”
Sarah wanted to cry. “But I like my face!”
Mommy hugged Sarah. “Bobby, stop that!” Mommy opened the bathroom door and turned on the light. “See? There’s no one in the mirror but you and me.”
That night Sarah didn’t want to go to bed. There was a mirror above her dresser. “Can I sleep with you, Mommy?”
“Are you afraid the witch will get you?” Mommy smiled. “Don’t worry. I can stop her.” Mommy took a pillowcase and put it over the mirror. “See? Now no witches can come through the mirror.”
Mommy tucked Sarah in and turned out the light when she left. Sarah stayed awake. She could feel someone watching her. Finally, she had to know. She went and peeked under the pillowcase. “Go away, Bloody Mary!”
The girl in the mirror frowned. “I’m not Bloody Mary. I’m just Mary.”
Sarah sniffled. “So you aren’t going to take my face?”
Mary laughed. “I have my own face. Why would I want yours?”
Sarah nodded. That made sense. “Why are you in the mirror?”
“Why aren’t you in the mirror?” Mary asked back.
“Because I’m a girl, and girls don’t live in mirrors.” Sarah replied.
“Well I’m a girl, and I live in a mirror.” Mary said firmly
“What’s it like in a mirror?” Sarah wondered.
“Shiny. Everything sparkles here. But it’s boring.”
“Why?” Sarah asked. “It sounds pretty.”
“There’s no one to play with.”
Sarah frowned. She always had someone to play with. Mommy played with her, Daddy played with her, even Bobby played with her. She wouldn’t like to be all alone. “I’ll play with you.”
“Really?” Mary smiled.
The next day, Sarah and Mary played together. They played hide and go seek. Sarah searched through the house to find Mary in different mirrors. Once Mary hid in Sarah’s mother’s pocketbook mirror. Another time she was in Bobby’s bathroom mirror. Sarah and Mary played all day.
The next day was Halloween. When Sarah woke up, she went to her closet. What was she going to wear to school? Sarah wanted to have the best costume. Sarah searched and searched. Something was sitting on top of the dresser. Sarah went to look. It was Mary’s pointy hat! Sarah put it on. She knew what she would be for Halloween!
Sarah went downstairs in her new costume. Mommy was making breakfast.
Mommy exclaimed when she saw Sarah. “Sarah dear, where did you find that hat?”
“Mary gave it to me.”
“Is she one of your friends from school?”
“No, she’s the witch from the mirror!” Sarah explained.
Mommy smiled. “Oh, of course she is. Mary is a lovely name, and that is a lovely hat!”
Sarah beamed. This would be the best Halloween yet!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hypermedia Production: A Children's Halloween Story

So, this week Jill, Jermaine and I decided to take on displaying a children's book in a single html page. The results are here:

Since I'm in an MFA program in Children's Literature at Hollins University when I'm not in the doctoral program here, I decided to spend the evening after class doing something I haven't done for any project yet this semester: writing content. I wrote a short Halloween story based upon the Bloody Mary legend where a girl misinterprets her brother's taunt to summon Bloody Mary by saying "Hell Mary" to a darkened mirror--she says "Hello, Mary," instead, and the story ensues. I passed the story on to Jill for illustration, and she came up with the simple styles for the two girls and the mother as the encounters continued. I later added my text on top of those images based upon her divisions for illustrative scenes, as the illustrator is usually in charge of that decision in the business of writing picture books. It was written to be read aloud by a parent, so some of the language is formative but mostly it is simple to understand. Jermaine took on the coding. The interface is very simple--navigational arrows--and takes its cue from other online picture books. The assumption is that a parent would probably be navigating the site and reading aloud, or perhaps encouraging their child to click on the next arrow to see what happens.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cha cha chas and Expression: Hypermedia Production

I just got back from a ballroom dance lesson with the same coach I've been working with since I first decided to discover movement a couple of years ago now--around the same time I started graduate school and realized I'd need social contact in my life with non-graduate student to remember what the real world was like! (Ironically, my coach? In addition to being a former ten dance champion, host of nationals, etc--currently an English graduate student.)

Yes, stay with me a moment, there is a point.

My partner and I have a competition coming up in a couple of weeks, so this lesson was spent running routines for latin over and over--four times through the cha cha, four times through the samba, the jive, the rumba, you get the idea. Sometime in the middle of one of those repetitions, my coach got as close to exasperated as it's possible for him to get and said to me, "You're one of the most expressive people I know...*except* on the dance floor."

So that got me thinking about what it means to be expressive, and where it's being expressed. A lot of people, when they start to dance, make the mistake of obsessing over wardrobe and makeup and hair. But when you go to a social dance, you can spot the great dancers in jeans and a t-shirt. The self-expression isn't in all the frills, although those frills can accent a great idea--take a look at Lacey and Lance's tango on Dancing with the Stars last week and you'll see what I mean:

Those costumes, however fabulous, are like the graphics on the scrolling site I put together this week (here)...self-expression? Of course. The point of this week's exercise? Not really. They're the means I thought most fitting to express the conceptual idea of the UI, not the UI itself. That routine and their movements make it work. This week, I tried to express something (admittedly, a very tiny something) through code, not through surface.

For instance: I could have tied my appendchild event to a mouseover of an image, or to a clickable "look here to see more" element. Instead, I tied it to the completion of scrolling, that is, to the viewing of all the available content. Would this annoy someone else from a usability standpoint--knowing that the user has no control over what happens, and no reason to expect more content? Probably. But I would be more annoyed at having to go through some extra step to get to the rest of the flow.

Coding doesn't seem like something for self-expression to a newcomer. That's why stealing code is so tempting: if someone else already wrote it, why do you need to do anything differently? It's the same thing as stealing a dance routine: they put these steps together and they work, so why wouldn't you do the same thing? Newcomers at comps usually dance the same routines they've all learned in classes from whatever coach teaches their school, so you can see dozens of couples dancing near each other all going through the same steps at once: an alamana, a closed hip twist, fan position, all in sync like they learned it for formation teams.