Word Clouds – Or How I Stopped Hating Algorithms

I flunked first year college math and algorithms were partly to blame. To me, algorithms were mysteriously ordered numbers at the back of the book; to the professor and most of my classmates, they were mathematical tools they (but not I) could manipulate in their various calculations.

It's all Algorithmic Greek to Me

Decades did nothing to alter my (non)grasp of algorithms. But today, after an emailed Word Cloud made me catch my breath at its fantastical kaleidoscope of tumbling words, I had an epiphany: in the right hands, algorithms process and pummel words into artworks as fanciful and compelling as a burst of laughter.

I don’t know who invented Word Clouds but if my math professor had, and if he’d told us about them, I believe I’d have gobbled up algorithmic theory and aced the course. (Well: at least I might have struggled through and passed it.)

Look at just how intriguing Word Clouds can be. I created each of them with the same text pasted into the template; it’s from the Books section on www.elizabethabbott.ca, my website, and is a big whack of critical praise (it’s my prerogative to omit any of the critical un-praise) for my most recent book, A History of Marriage. Word Cloud algorithms then gulped down all these wonderful words and reproduced them, bowing to my instructions about font, colour and size, and whether they should be structured or randomized. I haven’t yet conquered saving those that aren’t jpgable, but I managed to learn how to do screenshots instead, a minor triumph for someone fighting a lifetime’s self-identification as a math-and-science dunce.

At least I thought I had. But after posting this I realized that I can’t yet save screenshots on WordPress. Too bad, because my favorite Word Cloud is a Wordle, the colours rich against a stark background, key words jumbled out like an knock-down, no holds-barred spousal argument on a moonlit camping trip. Nor can I provide the source code, because Jonathan Feinberg, Wordle’s supremely clever inventor, wrote the the core algorithms on IBM company time, making IBM the owner, with reserved rights.

This Word It Out reminds me of a scribbled note in a womanly hand. It offers the promise (though it cannot deliver it) of a prose passage, an important message to be heeded if only one could.

Marriage Letter

This one is precise and messily serious, a teaching tool with built in Post-It notes and highlighter.

The one below is sexier, marriage and all its components squished into a heart pulsating with words in shades of pinkness.

Marriage From the Perspective of a Pink Heart

But the dangers of Word Clouds are already revealed. They are wickedly seductive and time-consuming, which is why I’m going to post these Clouded Words now, algorithms now loved though as mysterious as they ever were.

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