“these are all things that i just do for fun”

May 4, 2012

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There it is again. That wrinkled, hand-drawn Avengers graphic. This is the third time it’s appeared on this blog, which is certainly a record for Wonder Farm recycling. I hope you can excuse the chart for displaying itself again, though, because that funny little sheet of graph paper has generated some excitement around here lately.

Remember that post I wrote a month ago, about how I stumbled upon that fantastic Iliad graphic by visualization designer Santiago Ortiz, and how it reminded me of a few simple graphs T had drawn? And how Ortiz and I had connected via Twitter? Well, suddenly a new comment appeared on that post last week. The Data Artist in Residence from The New York Times, Jer Thorp, showed up just before dinner, to compliment my kid’s work! And for the next few days, hundreds of other folks showed up too, some of Thorp’s 10,000+ followers on Twitter, who arrived after he tweeted about a simple graph drawn by a 10-year-old and proclaimed it “AWESOME”.

Apparently Jer found his way to T’s chart after tweeting: “Of all the things that I have deep-seeded nerd knowledge about, the Avengers is easily top 3.” And Santiago Ortiz responded by tweeting a link to T’s chart and my post.

Beyond exciting. I thought: I should write about it on the blog!  And then I thought: why? Did I just want to show off?  My kid, New York Times artist, la di da!

I decided to think about that a bit.

Santiago Ortiz left another comment, recommending Jer Thorp’s TED talk. I’m glad that he did.

If you have fifteen minutes or so, give it a watch. Sure, it’s a talk about data, which may sound only slightly more interesting than a talk about finance, but allow yourself to be surprised. Jer is endearing; he’s a storyteller. Which is partly the premise of his talk, as you’ll see: there’s something essential in the interaction between data and story. When he gets to the data point showing the moment he met his girlfriend, see if you don’t get goose bumps. I actually teared up a little, but I’m a sap.

And his visualizations? Stunning. Beautiful in a way you never thought computer graphics could be.

Just as my show-off self was simmering down, and deciding not to post about this, Jer emailed this weekend, asking if he could use T’s graphics in a talk he’d be giving.

Could he use T’s graphics? (Snort!) YES. He could. Mr. T said so.

And then yesterday he posted this. His own series of Avengers visualizations. They are gorgeous and fascinating. (To see them in all their glorious, filagreed detail, click on the photo to see it on Flickr, click again to get to Lightbox view, click “view all sizes” on the right, and then click “original.”) Wow.

In that post, Jer gives credit to his inspiration for these visualizations. He mentions a particular ten-year-old.

Admiring his work, I flashed back to something Jer said in his TED talk. It was just an aside, after he showed a handful of his graphics, including the one of people saying good morning on Twitter.

I watched again, to get his words right.

“These are all things that I just do for fun. It might seem weird…I’m building tools for myself. I might share them with a few other people, but they’re for fun. They’re for me.”

That was when I knew I needed to write this post. And it wasn’t about showing off. (Well, not mostly.)

Jer made these incredibly complex, compelling visualizations for fun. For himself. Just as T had, when he spent a mind-boggling amount of time copying a long list of Avengers’ episode titles from Wikipedia to a piece of graph paper. For fun. For himself.

What propels a person to study a comic book series and to try to understand it though graphics? I suppose you’d have to ask Jer Thorp, or Mr. T. But clearly it has something to do with a passion for the topic. That sort of passion is important–yet it doesn’t have a place in traditional school learning. Passion-fueled learning is a powerful thing. We have to allow kids to pursue the fascinations that burn for them, even if they’re fascinations that may not seem particularly worthwhile to us, even if they’re fascinations with comic book characters. We need to give kids time to play with those fascinations, to fiddle with them, to create with them.

In his TED talk, Jer makes the point that we need to put data into a human context. There’s so much information out there; we need to humanize it, let it tell a story. In a similar way, we need to put learning into a human, individual context for our kids. We don’t learn by covering a bunch of information, those infinite bits of data that are out there, expanding exponentially, like all those Avengers on their radial graphs. We learn by engaging with what fascinates us, and seeing what we can do with it.

That’s what Jer Thorp does. When I look at his work, I realize: he still thinks like a kid. He wonders. He plays.

We need to let our kids do that too.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristin May 4, 2012 at 8:13 am

Ofcourse there is good reason to post this graph again! Point made clear: we must humanize and individualize learning! Kudos to Jer and T, Superheroes. They were inspired by a resurgence of Humanistic tendencies, celebrated and achieved in the 16th-17th century, the Rennaisance.

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patricia May 4, 2012 at 9:12 am

Yep, Jer and T were inspired by comic book artists, who were inspired by older artists and older mythologies. Art and myth are so powerful–yet we could just dismiss comic books as silly stuff. As Jer wrote in his post, “Even as an Avengers fan, it’s been surprising to see the depth and richness of content that finds its way into the pages of every issue and volume.”

Here’s to humanistic tendencies!

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suzee May 6, 2012 at 8:08 pm

This is GREAT! How exciting. And yes, agreed about humanistic tendencies. Also, the Avengers movie was TONS of fun. Hope he enjoys it.

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patricia May 7, 2012 at 8:42 am

Oh yeah. He saw the Avengers movie yesterday with his dad, and came home bursting with superhero energy. Pretty much drove me nuts until he finally went to bed!

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amy May 7, 2012 at 5:31 am

this is amazing! i’ll bet your son is beside himself! i could not agree more, let them follow their interests and passions – you have no idea where it will take them.

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patricia May 7, 2012 at 8:44 am

That’s right, Amy! Every time I’ve followed my kids’ interests–especially the quirky ones–they have never failed to astound me.

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Jody May 10, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Tricia this is just fabulous!

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Carrie Pomeroy May 14, 2012 at 8:47 pm

This reminds me of something I recently read in John Taylor Gatto’s “Weapons of Mass Instruction”–my husband’s sleeping in the room where the book is, so I can’t get the exact quote right now, but it was something along the lines of how the Internet is helping level the distance between “experts” and “amateurs,” and how both amateurs and experts would increasingly interact with each other and be inspired by each other. Talk about learning in the 21st century! What cool connections you and T. are making!

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patricia May 14, 2012 at 9:42 pm

That’s it, exactly! I think these designers have been just as tickled to meet a like-minded kid as T has been thrilled to interact with them. It’s neat to see.

Such an interesting Gatto insight. Thanks for sharing it, Carrie!

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wanderingsue August 21, 2013 at 3:25 am

Wow. Wow, wow, woweee. I was already going wow after I read the other post, and Jer Thorp’s reply, and followed those links, and watched his TED talk. And I am so glad you posted this- yes, well done you and Mr T, but really, how huge a thing to be able to say about home ed!

I also found it interesting that you called him, “New York Times artist,” (hmmm, can’t get italics in there,) where I kind of tripped out about how amazing his job looked. (I’m still sometimes completely cross at the “Careers Advisor” at my high school, and other adults who may (ought to!) have helped point me at some job fields I had never even considered might exist. And would have found awesome!) And having just finished Pink’s A Whole New Mind, there’s such ideas bouncing in my head. Am I so shallow to think that “artist” isn’t nearly a good enough, big enough word?

I’ve been thinking about those 6 right brain skills. I’m from a very mathematical family, and I was the one who initially chose the furthest interests from that- psychology, and special ed primary school teaching. I was able to define myself as pretty successfully people-focused and empathetic within the family, (I’m one of 5 siblings,) but out in the big world, ummm, nope, not so much, I guess. So now I’m pondering that- how do you make sure your kids, whether Home Educated or not, know not only their learning styles, but also how they fit into the world? Or something. I haven’t thought this through yet, it’s clear, because I don’t know what I’m talking about, and sorry for rambling so far off topic!

Has Mr T had a good smile about all this recently? Do you still get a big thrill?

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patricia August 21, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Thorp is a *data* artist, wanderingsue. Like you, I did not know such a job existed!

With him and Pink in mind, you should eventually expose your young homeschooled children to the burgeoning world of infographics! Because they are fascinating, and also a much more fun way to respond to something you’ve learned than a book report.

I think one of the beauties of homeschooling is that you and your kids discover their learning styles, whether you set out to or not. You will all begin to recognize what sort of endeavors interest and engage them, and which don’t. If, rather than pushing traditional school expectations, you focus on their interests, their learning styles will unfold beautifully before you. Pay attention to it all, and help your kids pay attention to it too. My younger two have recently become fascinated with Myers-Briggs personality typing. They have typed themselves, and love to guess at their friends’ types as well! For many homeschoolers, a desire to understand oneself comes with the territory–because they have the freedom to do just that.

Mr. T still thinks about the whole Jer Thorp experience from time to time; I’m sure it thrills me more. I still follow Jer on Twitter, and admit to having a slight crush on his artsy geekiness. 😉

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