Scratch: Playing Around With Programming

This week I took a look at the program ‘Scratch’. As the Vimeo video showed, the Scratch program is similar in nature to the programming style used to create a number of online video games (check out this site for some examples, or just to procrastinate on school work).

I have to admit, using this program was for me, at first, a huge pain in the neck. I had messed around with the Blockly Demo: Maze program first, and found the layout and and interface very easy to follow. Below is my instructions (code) for rescuing the little Stick Man from the maze:

 Granted, my code was very simplistic and the maze not very difficult to figure out logically, so that may have something to do with the ease of using this program. However, for a program newbie like me, this was a great way to get introduced to it all.

In contrast, the Scratch program was a bit of a nightmare at first. What was most overwhelming for me was the vast number of commands to choose from:

 In this box are eight different sections for controlling the characters in the program (which, in themselves, were also very complex – you could choose to load pre-existing characters or even create new ones! I chose to experiment using my roommates face, she loved it). Clicking on the various programs brought up various options, these:

I have to say, many of these were fun to play with, but exhausting to try to get to work in the sequence. One that I tried listed under ‘Sensing’, was an option to ‘ask <insert question> and wait’. I proceeded to insert that into my string of commands, followed by a number of others. However, when I tried to play it, the sequence would always get stuck just after this command. After going through it a few times, the genius moment finally dawned on me; I had set it to wait, but never gave it a set amount of time. I tried to pair it with other commands that had a set time limit, but never was able to get it to work (the theme of my many attempts). Eventually, I was able to mess around with the background and include a few of the simpler movement and sound commands (the ‘meow’ was a favorite in my apartment). Overall, the Scratch program for me had much more content and potential to explore and grow in programming skills (potentially even creating stories and scenarios, as the video mentioned in the beginning alluded to).


Digital Archiving: Comparative Look at Digitized Historical Events

For this week’s discussion of digital history, we took a look at three seperate archives, all based upon recent U.S. historical events. Below is an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as a number of the styles and techniques they had in common.

The April 16th Archive: Digital Archive of the Virginia Tech Tragedy

The first archive that I browsed through was the April 16th Archive, whose headline image is displayed above. As depicted above, this archive has collected images and texts related to the shootings at Virginia Tech. Below is a screen shot of the opening page of the archive:

For me personally, I felt the gray background of the webpage completely took over the space. Not only does the headline image only take up a third of the top of the page, the images displayed below it are lost in a sea of gray. While I think the designer was trying to go for a sobering color, I think it could have been done in a less all-consuming manner. Even adding in some of the school colors throughout the page would have been appropriate in my opinion (such as the box to the left of the image).

Going past the visual, I liked the way the information was broken up at the top. I was able to search through collections, get more information on the site, or return to the main page from any part of the archive. I specifically enjoyed the way the collection page was broken down into subsections, as shown below:

I was able to search through a variety of information (images, text, memorials) based upon victim, college, or special event). If I were a student doing research on the subject, I feel like I would be able to do a fairly decent job about capturing the reaction of those impacted by the tragedy, mostly in the form of images.

Another issue that I had with the page was its search method. When I went to the browse page, I was given the option of browsing by page or by tag. Because I didn’t see any sort of organization to the browsing by page, I chose to try the browsing by tag. This was possibly even more of a headache. The tags for the most part were extremely hard to read, and the enlargement of certain tags (most likely the most used) was distracting and seemed very odd visually. I would have preferred if they kept them all the same size and instead positioned them by most searched or used.

Overall, the layout of the archive was not visually appealing for me, and the search methods for the most part were not helpful. This archive definitely captures very moving and informing data, but for the purposes of real historical research, I would only be able to grasp the emotional rather than factual details, generally speaking.

Hurricane Digital Memory Bank

The next archive that I took a look at was the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. This archive looks at two hurricanes that impacted the U.S specifically – Katrina and Rita. This is an image of the opening page of the archive:

Compared to the last archive, I saw an immediate change in the way the designers used the physical space provided. Not only was the space of the page fully taken by the design, the sides of the page were colored in gray, matching the ‘hurricane-themed’ coloring of the page (blues, greens, etc.). I also enjoyed that the entire first page was not taken up by the producers of the archive explaining the reason for the webpage. The information was clearly visible on the opening page, and if I wanted to view the information I was able to do so, but I was not overwhelmed with it.

Also, I felt that this archive did a better job of organizing the information displayed. I was easily able to browse through different document types (video, images, text, etc.), and the use of tags was not distracting or overwhelming, as seen below:

The thumbnails of the searchable items was, in my mind, a great touch. Not only do I relate to things better in a visual way, when archiving events such as hurricanes and natural disasters, what impacts me the most or what I am most interested in seeing is the physical images of the data. Words, while important, can only go so far in informing me of a hurricane’s impact. This was an excellent touch that I think could have been very impactful in the April 16th Archive.

Another thing that I enjoyed about this archive was the amount of links it provided to other similar sites. I was able to link to archives done by the National Museum of American History and other reputable sources, which not only gave more credit to the legitimacy of the archive, but filled in any missing information I didn’t recieve from the Hurricane Memory Bank Archive. I would have liked to see more of this in the April 16th archive as well.

September 11th Digital Archive 

The last archive I looked through was the September 11th Archive, put together by many of the same designers of the Hurricane Memory Bank Archive. This definitely showed in the layout and overall design of the archive. Below is a screenshot of the opening page of the archive:

Again, I felt the colorscheme worked well for the purpose of the archive. I enjoyed that it wasn’t completely one color, that they placed a faded image of Ground Zero behind it. Also, by using a gray background instead of black, I felt that it stood out, at least for me personally, from the other 9/11 pages I have seen floating around on the web. One issue for me on the opening page was the awkward chunk of space on the right that only appears on this section of the archive. It looked to me like it was designed for a smaller display (and very well could have been, as it notes on the page that this is a beta version of a previous archive). Other than this small detail, I felt the initial page oriented me well for the archive.

Another attribute of this archive that I saw in the Hurricane Memory Bank was the easy to browse information. The site provided a number of ways for me to browse through the given information, including by type as well as by collection, as displayed below:

This made it much easier for me to search for exactly what type of information I wanted to see, and resembled many war and government-related archives I have seen in the past, which was a nice touch (albiet propbably unintentional). It made it easier for my mind to associate what I was viewing and what its purpose was. Also, I enjoyed that the color scheme seemed to stay the same throughout the archive, and matched well with the patriotic feel of the site.

Another portion of the site that I really liked was the 9/11 FAQS page. While the April 16th Archive covers more of the emotional side of the tragedy, I felt that this archive covered both the emotional and factual evidence of the tragedy well. For the purposes of historical research, I felt that this archive provided enough resources to cover both aspects of the event.


Ngram Viewer: Historical Jargon and the Journey of PC Language

My goal for this week’s practicum was to take a look at the way language has been used and changed historically to refer to both people groups and regions. Two prominent examples that came to mind were language uses for African Americans and the Middle East, the former representing the people group and the later representing the region.

Use of Discriminatory Language Towards African Americans

For the above diagram, I chose to compare three terms most commonly used to refer to the African American population in the U.S: Blacks, Negros, and African American. Through schooling and being raised in an anti-discrimination environment, I knew that the term ‘negro’ was and unfortunately still is a term used to refer to African Americans in a hateful way. I also knew that ‘blacks’ and ‘african american’ were terms that were used throughout history in an attempt to replace this hateful term. So, I decided to chart each of these terms into one graph to see when and by what degree these terms were exchanged for one another. The results weren’t very surprising. The use of the term ‘negro’ increased well above the term ‘blacks’ and especially ‘african americans’, peaking during the era of the Civil War, which was fought primarily over the issue of slavery. The term saw a major drop off until roughly 1875, when it went through an accordion-like rise and fall until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, where the term ‘blacks’ increased drastically. One element of this chart that did surprise me was the lack of movement in the use of the term ‘african american’. Even during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, the term never gains much, or any, popularity. I’m not much of a historical guru, or a linguist at that, but I would venture a guess that my understanding of the term ‘african american’ as a replacement for the previous derogatory term was incorrect. Any other hypotheses would be greatly appreciated!

 Use of Discriminatory Language Towards the Middle East 

Next, I decided to look at how regions have been referred to much the same way. This time I chose to use a topic that I was more familiar with: the Middle East. From this point, I chose three terms commonly used to refer to the region, the Orient, the Near East, and the Middle East. Again, these results were not very surprising to me as an educated viewer. Prior to the term ‘Near East’, the ‘Orient’ was a term used to refer to the region east of the European countries. Key in this use of the word ‘Orient’ was this idea of the ‘other’, or a group of people different from ones own people, and not in a positive sense. Many researchers and historians used the term in books and writings that viewed the region in a very negative light. Edward Said, a prominent scholar on the subject, wrote many books discussing just that. In an attempt to move away from the discriminatory term, the use of ‘Near East’ came into popular use among scholars and especially in universities. Classes became known as ‘Near East Studies’ rather than ‘Orient Studies’. This change, however, is dwarfed by the entrance of the term ‘Middle East’ starting in the 1940’s. One suggestion for this change could be the increased involvement the U.S. had in affairs in that part of the world, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A growing knowledge and familiarity with the region could well account for this change. Given this change, it is not surprising that both the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Near East’ began to die out and never rose again to such prominence.

From Babel to Knowledge: An Inside Look at Data Mining

(Sorry for the cheesy clip art, I couldn’t help myself…still shedding some of the engrained PowerPoint ‘skills’ I guess)

This week we took a look at Professor Cohen’s article on Data Mining, which can be linked to here. In his article, Professor Cohen discusses to main data mining ventures he has undertaken with regards to digital history.

Document Classification: Syllabus Finder 

The Syllabus Finder focuses on an aspect of data mining known as ‘keyword-in-context indexing’, or KWIC. This focus of data mining came about as a solution to the problem of finding similar documents, known as document classification. KWIC uses the concept of inverted indexing to generate a ‘dictionary of notions’ that group documents by key words, rather than topic, to collect sets of information that share similar traits, such as history syllabi. Professor Cohen used this tool to index online history syllabi, helping professors around the world to generate ideas and material for their potential courses. Some of the benefits of this type of indexing are that the results are more specific, bringing up more results than, say, Google or Yahoo would. I found the idea of paring this sort of tool with an API very interesting. While the tool is not perfect (9 out of 10 results are actually syllabi), this API tool would help to further eliminate that small margin of error.

Question Answering: H-Bot 

The ‘H-Bot‘ was the other tool Professor Cohen created and discussed in his article. As noted in the article, Question Answering (QA) is a far greater challenge than document classification in the data mining world, due to the greater strain on computer skills/techniques involved. Not only do the documents need to be found, the question being asked by a user must be properly dissected and understood by the program/computer. The H-Bot (an automated historical fact finder) is a tool that does just that. This tool in particular caught my attention for the potential role it could play in the future regarding ethical test taking. Its no surprise that some students will do whatever it takes to pass an exam, including cheating when they don’t grasp the material well. While the cheating of the past used to involve glancing over at a classmates paper, this tool has the potential to take the role of the student completely, answering the exam question by question for them. As the tool isn’t really open to the public in this way yet (according to the article), it wouldn’t take long for students to figure out this potential should the tool become open to the general public. This is definitely something that would have to be considered by professors as well as the H-Bot creators.


The Arab Spring: A Prezi Presentation

Powerpoint: A Familiar Kind of Torture

This week’s reading topic, namely PowerPoint, is something familiar to and detested by most every student today (if they aren’t living under a rock in hiding or protest). Edward Tufte, a Yale professor of graphic design and political science (among a number of other subjects) outlines a few of the many grievances against the slideware program. One argument Tufte brought up that resonated most with me was the lack of educational value and substance that goes into creating a PowerPoint presentation. Student’s spend days, even weeks, creating presentations that are based solely off of PowerPoint presentations that contain, perhaps, 80 words for every 6 slides. While I’m not one to jump on assigning essays and research papers instead of presentations, I have to wonder if students, myself included, really learn anything from presentations that are characterized by bulleted lists and eyesore color schemes.

An excellent example of this very point was created by Peter Norvig in his Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation. A humorous publication meant to poke fun at the mundane and downright awful uses PowerPoint has been put to, Norvig hits on many of the points made by Tufte.

 Of all the PowerPoint presentations I’ve been forced to sit through over my time as a student, this is possibly one of the most grotesque. The saddest part about these slides, however, is not that these colors were forced into one space, but that Norvig didn’t even have to create this himself. Yes, this horrid color combo was offered by the slideware program he used. Creators don’t even have to try and give their audience a headache, PowerPoint programs now do it for them.

 Another element Norvig included in his presentation that Tufte commented on in his article was the lack of word content. The slide above, chosen for no specific reason, gives a good example of what the other slides in the presentation looked like. The bullet points were short, lacking description, and did not follow much of a flow in terms of presentation quality. In addition, the use of punctuation (namely the exclamation points) was out of place and really not needed. We get it, you’re excited, but please, show it in your voice, not the slides.

On a side note, I decided to test out Tufte’s theory and see if 6 slides really do contain only 80 words. The count came out to 85, roughly, much less than I would have expected from 6 slides of supposed educational content.

Overall, I really enjoyed Norvig’s satirical creation, one powerpoint presentation I wasn’t bored to tears watching.