“I enjoy Ouija boards as handsome declarations of the alphabet”, Monte Thrasher wrote me last year. We have since exchanged some ideas and he shared a couple of his fascinating ideas and concepts, such as his “Oracle” project of redesigning the Ouija board.
“It occurred to me that a standard Ouija board is clumsy and labor intensive. For one thing, you use A over and over, but it’s set way off to one side”, wrote the artist. “So why not group all the vowels at the center for easy access? And Q always needs a U, so place those two together, and so on.”
“This lead me to study cryptography statistics. T is the most common consonant, and it groups most often with E, so set them side by side, and so on. I thought of making the common letters larger and the rare ones smaller. What I ended up with was a curious image, something like an oculist’s eye chart gone mad, a seemingly random mishmash of letters. Here’s an early sketch:”
“In the final version the Oracle Board wasn’t much to look at. I realized that my statistical approach to language required, not a graphic approach like these charts, but a statistical one, a sprinkling of little letters across a field; lots of E’s, slightly fewer T’s, and so on, following the well-known set of ETAOINSHRDLU etc., from the most to the least common letters in English.”
“Visually dull but oracularly fruitful. True, its ‘messages’ were full of misspellings and garbled stuff, but any querent using the board is welcome to keep or discard whatever parts of the message he or she chooses, since it’s all equally meaningful. Or, as one clairvoyant said, the Dead make typos too.”
And this was just the beginning. From keyboard layouts to word clouds, from the Fox sisters spiritual telegraph to the iPad spirit board apps and beyond, we will explore the idea of redesigning the Ouija board.
Here’s the Wikipedia entry for “ETAOIN SHRDLU”, that is, a nonsense phrase that linotype operators sometimes casted by simply typing the first two vertical columns on their keyboard, much like we may type “qwerty” or “asdfg”, with the difference that old linotype keys were arranged by letter frequency.
That is, “etaoin / shrdlu” are the twelve most commonly used letters in English language.
Does this linotype keyboard arrangement somewhat reminds of what Thrasher suggested for an improved Ouija board? But let’s leave that aside for a moment.
What about the idea of also having the letters of different sizes according to their frequencies, as in Thrasher’s early sketch… have you not seen something similar on any blog?
Above, a Wordle of the article “Mind Under Matter”. As a default, the most common English words such as “the”, “you”, etc., are removed, for the word cloud to clearly represent the most used relevant words in the text. And it works beautifully – even without reading the whole article one can realize it refers to the brain, illusions and consciousness quite a lot.
If we on the other hand create a word cloud without removing the “the”, “you” and everything, we get something like this:
Not very useful to quickly capture the gist of the article… but then, as it has all the words arranged by size according to their frequency, such a Wordle would be particularly useful if we wanted to rewrite the text, word by word, simply by moving… a planchette, as in an Ouija board.
And the amazing thing is, this Wordle was created automatically. You could, for instance, create a wordle for the Bible (with or without removing the most common English words) and have some great fun having the “spirits” remixing it.
I can’t express how amazingly cool it is that a novel information visualization technique can be used to automatically create an improved Ouija board following the lines of the original suggestion by a talented artist such as Monte Thrasher.
This interplay of superstition, art and technology is quite beautiful, and as we will see in the next post, actually goes way back.
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