Asking Questions of Your Data

Now that my data is normalized and I have a good idea of what is contained in my database, it’s time to start asking questions of my data. What do I want to know? Which queries are only for me? Which would I like to embed into a web page? While they don’t seem like tough questions, it is beginning to dawn on me that my issues with PHP may be more than just a learning curve. It isn’t so much the learning of the language (although, I am struggling with that), it’s also the fact that I don’t sit down and think about what I want it to do BEFORE I start coding.

I dive right in, copy examples and start changing variables and functions without even thinking about what I want it to do, let alone what this code snippet was programmed to do. The maddening part of PHP is that it’s so personal and subjective–each coder has written into the code their own logic and language. What is mine?

<crickets>

Honestly, I don’t know. I do know the questions I want to ask.

  1. How many women were executed in the United States?
  2. For what crimes? (Cluster the crimes)
  3. In what states? (Cluster both the state numbers AND the crimes by state)
  4. Are there any moments in time where there were an abnormally large group of women executed?
  5. Are there any states in which more women were executed over others?
  6. What of Virginia? What happened here?
  7. What overall trends can I see?
  8. What is missing?

Some of these questions are really specific and easy to both code and show. Others are not. All of this is to say that I’m still working on figuring this out. I admit that this “paralysis by analysis” affected my productivity this week. My output wasn’t what I had been hoping. Still, this is all part of the process, right? Right?

Confessions of a Photoshop Hack

I admit it. I’m a hack. I know enough about Photoshop to be dangerous, but not really enough to know if what I’m doing is correct. And after reading Katrin Eismann’s Photoshop Restoration & Retouching, I am flat-out breaking some cardinal rules.

I never use layers. Gasp. I just move the sliders around until I like what I’ve got. No! I don’t flatten my images when I’m done. Sacrilege.

Okay, kidding aside. I read this book and realized all the mistakes I was making and how they probably weren’t helping me get the most out of my own images, let alone restore or retouch historic ones. Not that I’ve ever tried this before last week’s class. Furthermore, I realize that I was using Photoshop in the most inefficient way imaginable.

Truth be told, I never effectively learned it beyond surface-level adjustments. Someone in the photo department at work showed me how to open, resize, crop, stroke, adjust some curves and sharpen images for use on our sites and I never looked back. For the last 6 years, I think I’ve expressed, at least twice a year, a desire to really learn it. To take a class. Or watch a tutorial or something. But I never found the time.

So I was very happy there was a Photoshop book and an images assignment on the syllabus. At least I hope to get beyond this basic understanding of what these things do. And I have to admit, I already know what I’m doing wrong. And potentially, how to fix it, so that’s a start, right?

As a happy coincidence, I have a bunch of photos to play with, so I tried my hand at some of the tone and contrast adjustments.

Take for example these shots of poor Mrs. Barnes, who asphyxiated in her kitchen.

The image on the left is the original shot.  I’m terrible at calculating light and exposure, so I took an image that’s washed out and badly exposed.

I knew I wanted the colors to pop, so I adjusted the tone using curves and then fiddled with the saturation until I got the look I wanted. In the image on the right, the colors are richer. You can actually see the blues and reds in her apron and the auburn in her hair. More importantly you can see bright pink in her cheeks indicative of asphyxiation. Do you see it? (I did crop the image, which is why she’s much closer on the right. I promise, they are the same.)

Anyway, I’m not super thrilled with the ridiculously white refrigerator door, but given what is in the book, I can continue to tweak it and see what I come up with.

I haven’t tried hand-coloring since class. That was a bit of an explosion of peach and red on that poor man’s face!

Morris and Photo Staging

I am very impressed with how everyone has, so far, addressed the issues raised by the Morris readings. I know that as an editor of both a magazine and a website, I’ve made very specific photo assignments, because I needed a specific visual or emotion to match the accompanying story. The only “staged” images I’ve ever requested were for the express purpose of stock art. (I worked for an equestrian magazine and surprisingly, you can’t buy useful equestrian stock art at istockphoto..)

I won’t recap it here, namely because Clay, Kellie, Zayna, Ruel, Roger and Laura all do a fantastic job of starting an interesting conversation about the matter on their own blogs. But I do think it is worth noting that photos, like text, need to be read with the potential bias of their creators in mind.

As Dr. Larry Levine told us in his Reading Autobiography class back in 2003, reading autobiography as a primary source is extremely dangerous because each author was trying to present an image of themselves to the reader. Similarly, most photographers are attempting to evoke a certain perspective. Theirs.

While it’s impossible for me to fake images of these dolls (they are glued to the floor), I can use Photoshop to highlight certain aspects of the images, say by making the blood redder or more grotesque. It takes a light hand on the editing front and a sharp mind on the analysis. Much like with my colorization project, I’m still learning about the light hand.