A History of Choose Your Own Adventure Visualizations

Every six months or so it seems as if the entire Internet discovers for the first time that people are making data visualizations of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular in the early eighties. Computer scientist Christian Swinehart’s stunning visualizations are only the most recent to capture the imagination of scores of old fans, academics, and data fanatics.

Here then is a brief history of these CYOA maps:

September 2003 Andrew Stern maps a CYOA-inspired book (Night of a Thousand Boyfriends) on the group-blog Grand Text Auto. As far as I can determine, Stern’s is the ur-map, the CYOA map that started it all. Stern modestly calls his rudimentary hand-drawn map “a fun exercise,” but as the CYOA visualizations he inspired increase in complexity over time, Stern’s map is revealed to be visionary.

April 2004 Inspired directly by Stern, Matthew Kirschenbaum assigns a CYOA mapping assignment to undergraduate students in his Computer and Text course at the University of Maryland. One of Matt’s goals is to test the assumption that electronic literature is “simply a souped-up version of CYOA.”

December 2004 Greg Lord, one of Kirschenbaum’s students from the Fall 2004 section of Computer and Text, creates an interactive map of The Third Planet from Altair (CYOA #7). It is the most visually sophisticated map so far, and Lord’s analysis of the book’s various kinds of paths is especially thoughtful.

September 2005 I borrow Kirschenbaum’s assignment and revise it for a class at George Mason University on new media. As an example for my students, I map the first book in the series, The Cave of Time (CYOA #1). My own inter­est in the map­ping of these books lies in the moral struc­ture embed­ded within the nov­els, in which cer­tain choices are rewarded and oth­ers are not. I’m also fas­ci­nated by the assumptions the books make about what con­sti­tutes a failed or sat­is­fy­ing end­ing.

March 2008 Sean Ragan turns The Mystery of Chimney Rock (CYOA #5) into a directed graph. Ragan uses AT&T’s open source Graphviz software for his map, which takes a simple text file of options (e.g. “3 -> 4, 3-> 6) and compiles them into a diagram.

September 2008 My GMU students map CYOA books for a class on ergodic literature (ergodic: a neologism coined by Espen Aarseth to describe literature that requires non-trivial choices from the reader). The assignment is a revision of the September 2005 assignment, and I connect it to Franco Moretti’s idea of a “distant reading” of literature.

July 2009 Designer Michael Niggel creates an analysis of paths and outcomes of Journey Under the Sea (CYOA #2). Niggel finds that over 75 percent of the book’s endings are unfavorable (50 percent will actually end in death).

November 2009 Christian Swinehart offers multiple data views of twelve CYOA books, a project that took 13 months to complete. Swinehart’s project is in effect a longitudinal study of CYOA’s evolution, showing that later books were more linear and offered fewer endings.

Conclusions?

Given the recurring interest in these maps from both literature professors and computer scientists, I imagine we haven’t seen the last of these maps. I also imagine the trend to treat CYOA books as data sets will intensify. And as data sets, they can be manipulated in novel and ingenious ways, in which subtle patterns can be extracted, patterns which may tell us a great deal about what we humans like and don’t like in the sto­ries we tell our­selves about ourselves.

My Talk for MITH: The Open Source Professor

I’m in the midst of preparing for my upcoming talk at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Technology in the Humanities. The talk is October 27 and my title is The Open Source Professor: Teaching, Research, and Transparency. Here’s the abstract, written by me, uncomfortably, in the 3rd person:

What happens when the scholarship of teaching meets Web 2.0? Professor Sample argues the ideal result is the open source professor, a teacher and scholar who applies the tenets of the open source software community to his or her own professional life. This means sharing, conversation, collaboration, and reflection at every step in the teaching and research process, not just with the final product. Technology plays a key role in making open source professing possible, and Professor Sample will discuss the philosophical and practical implications of such a transparent approach to pedagogy and scholarship, as well as possible pitfalls for untenured faculty.

Come out to the University of Maryland in two weeks to see me, or stay tuned for information about the podcast. If I sound smarter than I really am, that’s because the webcam adds 10 points to your IQ.

Long Live Rock: The Tragically Hip

Toledo Zoo Amphitheater, June 1996

The zoo is a crazy place for a rock concert, but for the Tragically Hip, this Depression-era amphitheater was perfect. And this was years before Gord Downie sang about Gus, the polar bear in Central Park (In Between Evolution, 2004). I like to think that the Toledo Zoo was his initial inspiration for this later polar bear song (“What’s troubling Gus / Is it nothing goes quiet?”). Anyone who has seen the Hip in concert, or heard Gord Downie on one of his solo shows, knows that he improvises extended monologues during instrumental breaks in the songs. On this particular night in June, 1996, probably during “New Orleans Is Sinking,” Downie went on a long surreal rant about bored polar bears panting in the sun in the American midwest, an improv piece evidently inspired by his pre-concert walk around the zoo. I think in this same monologue Downie riffed on dolphins too, talking about how the artist dolphins never swam with the rest of the pod.

I went to the concert with Scott, and maybe he remembers some of the monologue too. The Hip was the only live show I saw with Scott, though he and I saw dozens of movies together. I can’t remember how I got Scott hooked on the Tragically Hip, but I did. A month or two after the concert, when I moved away from Toledo, Scott surprised me with the Hip’s rare self-titled 1987 debut CD. By 1996, with moody songs like “Nautical Disaster” and “Springtime in Vienna,” the Hip had moved light years beyond “I’m a Werewolf, Baby.” How could they not?

As an aside that doesn’t fit in with the usual nostalgic tone of all my concert posts, I have to say that the Hip’s online presence is remarkably rich, a model of what a Web 2.0 rock band should look like. In true “Here Comes Everybody” fashion, the site combines Hip-produced content with fan-generated media. Every set list for every show ever is online — here’s the set list for the 1996 Toledo Zoo show. And fans can add their own concert stories in the “Hip Story Project,” which is essentially a digital archive open to everyone, much like the online collections my neighbors at the Center for History and New Media design.

Funny thing, though, I am not going to post my story — this story here — in the Hip’s archive. It belongs to me and my own collection of concert memories. Ultimately these stories are not about any particular band, or even the concert experience, but something much more intangible. The past. And not just any past. My past.

Long Live Rock: Dougie MacLean

The Ark, Ann Arbor, circa 1996

Another concert with Tim, who was in grad school at Michigan by this point. Dougie was fantastic — The Ark is an intimate venue, and as I remember it, we were sitting just a row or two from the stage. I watched transfixed as Dougie tuned his guitar differently for each song, taking only seconds to go from a standard EADGBE to a rich open tuning like DADABD.

What really stands out in my mind twelve years later is how I came to the music of Dougie MacLean in the first place, through a series of acquaintances in college whose names I have trouble even recalling. At the end of the line was Wendy, whose name I do recall, though I don’t know what her last name is these days. On a mix tape I must still have, tucked away in some shoebox — though with no means to play it — she had included “Ready for the Storm” and another MacLean song, and I’m having trouble just now remembering which one. Maybe “Singing Land” or “Caledonia.” But definitely “Ready for the Storm.” I’ll never forget how blown away I was when I heard the song for the first time. It was even more powerful when I heard Dougie perform it live a few years later, but some of that power must have come from the bailfuls of nostalgia that swamped me at the time.

Going back a few years, Wendy had dubbed the two songs from a mix tape of her roommate’s, a zoology major named Heidi. I want to say Heidi Michaels was her name, but I can’t say for sure. Google doesn’t help in this regard. She was supposed to have gone off to grad school to study wolves, but I don’t know that she did.

Heidi’s mix tape was made by a friend of hers, a sometime suitor named Colin. I want to say Colin’s last name was Michaels too, but that can’t be right. This is where the trail really goes cold. I don’t think Colin and I ever said much to each other. The odd thing is that one spring break, 1992 it must have been, a van full of these people I’m naming drove to Hilton Head, where Colin’s family had an empty condo waiting for us on a golf resort. Who all went on this trip I’m having trouble remembering: Wendy, Heidi, Colin, me, and some other people too. There was one of Heidi’s friends, named OT, which was short I guess for Othelia. She moved to Brazil after graduation. I seem to remember this. To work in a pizza parlor with her older sister, who was married to a Brazilian man? I think I’ve got that right.

The beach at Hilton Head was usually too cold for swimming, and none of us golfed. Heidi and Colin mostly went birding.

Funny, as I wrote that last sentence I’m listening to a Dougie MacLean CD I bought years later, and the song playing right now is “High Flying Seagull.”

Anyway, so all these people are gone from my life, and even in 1996 at the concert with Tim, they were gone then too.

Tim and I are still in touch. And Dougie’s still around too. I see he’s going back to The Ark in Ann Arbor this September. If I were a few hundred miles closer I’d try to see him again. It’s the closest he comes to North Carolina. Mostly he’s in Scotland. Everyone is in some place, aren’t they?

RSS is Forever

One of the interesting features of Twitter is that you can delete a “tweet” you’ve written and it will retroactively disappear from any of your followers’ lists of tweets. This is different from RSS, where, once an RSS reader has collected the post data from a feed, the excerpt (or entire post) in the RSS reader takes on a life of its own, independent of the original blog post. So if you make any revisions to your original post after various readers have been “pinged,” then chances are those changes will not be reflected in the RSS feeds.

Case in point, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, posted a link to and some comments about a “news report” on how Barack Obama spends hours practicing gazing into the future pose. The only trouble was, this story, which Cowen appears to have taken at face value, was originally from The Onion. I read Tyler’s post on Google Reader, and when I tried to follow the story back to the Marginal Revolution site, I discovered Tyler had deleted the post, presumably because he realized his mistake. Here, below, is the only evidence that the post ever existed, a screen shot of the Marginal Revolution feed in my Google Reader.

Marginal Revolution Screen Capture

This vanishing post brings up some interesting questions for the age of blogging. When is it necessary to delete a post entirely, versus tacking on an addendum? Why not let an erroneous post stay live, but let the follow-up comments sort through any corrections that need to be made, preserving the original post as a kind of historical document (much as Wikipedia archives every version of a Wiki entry as part of the entry’s “history”)?

The vanishing post also highlights the fact that in the digital age, nothing is ever “lost.” As numerous politicians have discovered, even something as seemingly ephemeral as a text message is preserved in some corporation’s database, subject to subpoena. Come to think of it, I’m sure even Twitter has a copy of those tweets I deleted…

Reading Lists for Fall 2008

My course descriptions for Fall 2008 have been up for a while, but here are the specific reading lists for both classes (cross-posted from my official university site):

Reading List for ENGL 343 – Textual Media

Reading List for HNRS 414:003 – American Postmodernism


Raiders of the Lost Ark Comic Book

Raiders of the Lost Ark Marvel AdaptationIn anticipation of the upcoming Indiana Jones movie, I dug through the old comic book box and came up with this, Marvel’s “Official Comics Adaptation of the Hit Title” — the original Raiders of the Lost Ark in comic book form (larger image).

You’d think this would be worth some money on eBay, but it looks like they’re going for about a buck a pop. So much for another one of my “collector’s item.”