{ Life in Narnia: Winter Term 2011 }

It's snowing again, little tiny flakes that shimmer when the light touches them. They are gradually obscuring the giant dragon someone drew in the snow facing North, along with the giant treble clef between East and French House and the (labeled) graph of y = sin(x) facing Burton.

Oberlin in the snow always makes me think of Narnia. Maybe it's all the lampposts around here.

As some of you may know, last year I spent Winter Term at home, conducting an exhaustive analysis of bathroom graffiti. That was fun, but I'm staying on campus for Winter Term this year. It's a different, but no less rewarding, experience.

For most people, Winter Term is largely downtime, interspersed with reading or wacky projects. I have friends in the Winter Term circus and the Firefly-based musical that a few people on Hall wrote; I know someone learning embroidery stitches; my roommate is writing a novel. Even the classes you can take are usually a bit off-beat--Aikido, for instance. I'm a little unusual in that I'm taking an academic class: computational modeling.

Models are simplified representations of reality created for some purpose. People tend to think models serve only to predict outcomes, but they don't have to; they can help flesh out theories, explore a phenomenon, or just describe something and make it easier to understand. Think of an atom. My guess is you used some analogy-based model: the one where electrons make a "shell" around the nucleus, or the more simplified version where the electrons "orbit" the nucleus. Those are models!

Often the physical or social sciences use models to test some theory. The ones you hear about the most are probably computational models dealing with the economy or the climate, or maybe physical models like planes in a wind tunnel. But really, anything that represents anything else can be seen as a model. A stick figure is a model of a person.

Sometimes conceptual models get quite complex, and it would be very difficult to guess how they'd play out in full. Computational models allow us to do that: we tell computers what to do in such-and-such a case, where to put in a randomized variable, and run the simulation several times to see what happens. You can even change parameters to see what effect that has on the outcome, if any.

Our class is meeting every day for a few weeks, then breaking to work on our own models. At the end of Winter Term, we'll meet up again and present the models and our conclusions. I'm going to be modeling the spread of information through social networks. Other people in the class are modeling association networks in the brain, swarms of locusts, basketball games, a zombie infestation, and deformation of the magnetosphere by solar wind.

In addition to that, I'm continuing with the psychology research I was doing last year. There are two people who are actually doing that for their Winter Term projects, so I'm training them in and working with them on some things. I think we're going to get a lot done!

I'm also lifeguarding four mornings a week.

This is kind of a lot of obligations for a Winter Term. I don't mind it--I'm enjoying most of what I do. I just have to make sure I get my downtime, too. Emma, my roommate, has been a great help with this, periodically informing me that I'm doing too much. In fact, when I mentioned earlier that "I ought to write a blog," she thought at first that I meant start a new blog (rather than make a new post on this one) and threatened to hit me with a hammer unless I stopped working so hard.

My favorite way to relax, these past few days, has been getting a jump on my reading for one of my classes next semester. Now, before you facepalm yourselves into your keyboards or scream at the computer, "THIS GIRL HAS NO LIFE!", allow me to explain that the class in question is Creative Writing 255, Graphic Narrative.

That's right, I'm reading comics for college credit.

(Actually, I did that already, in my Superheroes ExCo last year, but this is a "real" class.)

The book I've been reading is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in comics/graphic novels, whether they're already familiar with the format or not. The book itself is in comics format. ("Comics" here does not refer to "Technicolor periodicals in which superheroes beat up bad guys; it is a medium which he defines in the first chapter.) He shoots down once and for all the idea that comics are somehow innately unsophisticated because they combine words and pictures and draws our attention to the unique effects that can only emerge in such a medium. A lot of these are things you are likely to already know and take for granted--using lines to indicate smell or movement or emotion, for example.

McCloud discusses how people identify better with cartoons than with more realistic drawings. Often, he says, villains and backgrounds are drawn more representationally than protagonists--we "feel" more like the stylized people and can fit into their world better. He has a pretty compelling example, too. He discusses the representation of time and space and how they mix; the use of icons, from the speech bubble to color to the characters themselves; and the reader involvement required to bring everything to life, connecting the dots between panels.

I could gush about this book for a long time. I'd advise anyone who's already intrigued to go get it from their library; it's entertaining and interesting and will probably make you appreciate comics more.

As long as I'm recommending graphic novels, I should also mention Sandmanand Y: The Last Man. Both of these series(es?) have seriously funny moments and quite a few characters you grow very attached to. The ideas are interesting and very well executed. Sandman was what really made me impressed with comics--and please keep in mind that I read Watchmen first. The first volume is less . . . certain than the others, more of a horror comic and full of references to old D.C. comics that I, at least, didn't really know. Then Gaiman gets his feet under him, or something, and it takes off into a sweeping epic, by turns bittersweet, uplifting, and deeply disturbing.

Y: The Last Man plays out on a less grandiose scale, but it's engaging and accessible and brings up some very interesting issues. (It's also lighter-spirited than Sandman, though they both deal with some seriously weighty issues.) The premise is that, suddenly and inexplicably, every being on earth with a Y chromosome drops dead--every being, that is, except for a twenty-something amateur magician and his pet monkey.

I've also been enjoying the opportunities and camaraderie that come with eating in a co-op! Sci-Fi Hall has basically taken over Keep Co-op for the duration of Winter Term. It's great; I get to eat (and help make!) delicious food, for one thing, but more importantly, it makes it easy for me to interact with people who I have been too busy or stuck in a rut to hang out with before. For instance, a few days ago I found myself singing filk (science-fiction folk songs) with a small group in the kitchen.

The Co-op probably deserves its own blog, though, so I'll leave that for next time. Stay tuned!

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{ Responses To This Entry }

My inner nerd is saying YESSS to your social networking modeling. I can't wait to see what you make!

Also, I have a recommendation of a place that has modelings (actually, it's more charts/graphs/visual graphics) that I love. Beware, I Love Charts could suck up a great deal of your time.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on January 13, 2011 11:39 AM

I'll show you when I finish, then, Ma'ayan. :)

Whee! There are a couple sites like this out there, aren't there? I keep Stumbling on them and they crack me up.

Incidentally, you seem like the person to ask, but I keep forgetting--does Oberlin have any classes on social media/what would your suggestions be for studying it?

Posted by: Tess on January 13, 2011 1:33 PM

I love Scott McCloud's books! If you enjoy that class, I'd definitely recommend Brian Doan's Comics & Animation class in the Cinema Studies department (and I'm not just saying that because I took three of his classes and he was my advisor for my final project).

I second Ma'ayan's recommendation of I Love Charts, and if you prefer more lighthearted fare, I'd also suggest graphjam.com.

Posted by: Chris on January 14, 2011 11:33 AM

So cool! Please post about your modeling project when it's done -- I want to hear more about it! (I know a couple other people doing that Winter Term project; it sounds fascinating.)

And yes, Snowberlin bears a striking resemblance to Narnia, especially if you're walking across Tappan Square at midnight...

Posted by: Eli on January 14, 2011 2:06 PM

@Chris: Sounds like a cool class! I'll keep it in mind. Also, graphjam just cracked me up.

@Eli: Okay! Details will come later--although I think I'll gloss over the technical end of it, as NetLogo has its own programming language that no one but those who use NetLogo have any reason to know.

Posted by: Tess on January 14, 2011 4:24 PM

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