The art of comics – Understanding ontologies better?!

Comics always were a part of my life. I still love comics, even though my time for them is scarce. I grew up reading tons of comics at my cousin’s place, which was easily reachable via our backyard. I spent a lot of time there with Batman, Superman, The Fantastic Four, and many more super-heroes. Of course, at that time comics were seen as a very bad influence on impressionable young minds; at least as bad as computer games today, I suppose. As my cousin also drew comics herself I learned already back then a lot about the structure of comics and what makes super-heroes tick. But it took me over 25 years to actually learn some more about comics. Scott McLoud opened my eyes in his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art about a lot of things. This book shows and not only tells, as it uses the same medium it talks about: it itself is a comic book.

uc.jpgReading Understanding Comics I was astonished how many similarities I found between comics and ontologies, i.e., formal representations of the world. Comics and ontologies represent, each in their own way, views of the world. Comics exaggerate physical and mental abilities, distort laws of nature, and portray extreme characters. Granted. But all is grounded in our own experience and would not work without our experience. For example, often action in comic book scenes takes place only in between the panels, i.e., in the mind of the reader. The artist draws the scene before and after the action takes place, and the reader fills in the blanks. And a kid surely fills in the blanks differently than an adult. I was not aware of my own interaction with the comic.

Comics abstract from the world. They are most of the time intentionally not as photo-realistic as they could be. By stripping away details the artist can let the reader focus on what is important. Scott McLoud presents several techniques used in comics, of which I knew only a few. I was not even aware of most of the others even though I would have argued that I have read comics carefully. Read, yes, but, obviously, not studied carefully.

In another chapter, Scott McLoud addresses upcoming comic artists. He presents a six step process of how to become a comic artist. Again, I was reminded of how to become a knowledge engineer. One needs to master a craft as well as have some talent. Any kind of artist has to decide in which form an idea will be expressed, following some school of art (idiom). Then the artist composes the work, leaving some things in and others out. For crafting the art, the necessary skills and knowledge need to be available. Finally, without some production skills the surface of the art work will not be appealing enough to sell the art work as the surface is the first thing a customer will base the buying decision on. Well, how come that ontologies do not sell, one could wonder.

There are a lot more interesting things to say about this book. Time can flow quite differently in comic books. The triangle of reality, picture plane, and language is discussed in detail. And much more …

After reading Understanding Comics I am able to enjoy comics on an additional level, now having more knowledge about the craftsmanship of comic artists.

I now wonder whether and how some of the techniques could be put to use in developing explanation-aware systems. Any suggestions?

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Learning to present professionally and effectively

A media training for scientists provided me with valuable feedback on my own performance in various situations and on a television screen besides lots of other media related information (see earlier post , in German). … The book is, as he says himself somewhere in it, quite US-centered and I do not agree with all of his political views, but it is definitely worth a read.

Giving presentations is part of my job, striving for memorable presentations is part of my profession’s as well as my personal ethos.

I started out preparing slides in the typical way, looking at other presentations and trying to figure out how it is professionally done. I assume my presentations then were as boring as those of most others, contributing to death by PowerPoint, by Apple Keynote, or any other slideware. All the tools can be used for putting the audience to sleep without any effort, but the tools are not the source of trouble.

Over the years I found some interesting news feeds, for example Les Posen’s CyberPsych Blog, with—among other topics—insightful analyses of Steve Jobs‘ keynote speeches. I started to mimic the style of his slides with a less-is-more-attitude. My presentations got noticably better (according to positive remarks from attendees) but I still did not really know what I was doing.

Last year I began to work on my skills in earnest. A seminar at the University of Mainz set the starting point. A media training for scientists provided me with valuable feedback on my own performance in various situations and on a television screen besides lots of other media related information (see earlier post, in German).

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But the most influential source about presentation-related knowledge was and is Garr Reynolds‘ blog Presentation Zen. On this blog I found material what I was looking for. Garr Reynolds writes about my personal situation. That is the how I perceive it—and that is, by the way, why I love the Web so much. You can find kindred spirits there and people having similar problems / life situations … well … I get side-tracked—Presentation Zen is a valuable collection every presenter should check out. Fortunately, Garr Reynolds made also a book of it: Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. It contains lots of helpful hints on improving your presentations. What I like most about this book is that it is case-based. Lots of examples simply show you the better way of presenting ideas.

From the many books he recommends (scroll down a bit on his blog) I found two very interesting and would like to recommend them to you, too:

  • Daniel H. Pink’s A Whole New Mind: While Right-Brainers will Rule the Future
  • Stephen M. Kosslyn’s Clear and to the Point: Eight Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations

„Show, don’t tell!“ is an important rule in story telling. In a way I got the feeling that Garr Reynolds shows whereas Stephen Kosslyn tells. Garr also got lucky that he could provide all examples in colour whereas Stephen Kosslyn’s book suffers from grayscale examples. The books are not really comparable. I like all the psychological explanations Stephen Kosslyn presents. They are important to deal with complex stuff and helps portioning what you want to convey. You will also find some of this in Presentation Zen, but I think both books could be seen as two sides of a coin.

Much has been written in the last years about the differences of our brain’s left and right hemispheres. Daniel Pink reminds us of our given creativity in A Whole New Mind. Have a look at the „six high-concept, high-touch senses“ (see an overview here). The book is, as he says himself somewhere in it, quite US-centered and I do not agree with all of his political views, but it is definitely worth a read.

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