Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Programmable Webs

This week's foray into programmable webs was interesting to say the least; I had no idea that is so common for people to be combining visual maps and information for so many different purposes. I knew of programs that could locate stores, etc. near a location but it was interesting to see how various people are making use of the technology to create webs based on their interests.

I reviewed several of the programmable webs from the 'popular recent mashups' category to see what was getting people's attention. I found a relatively wide variety of 'services' that these programs offered. Here's my feedback on a few:

Flowser is designed as a visual Amazon browser. The intention is for potential customers to type in their search term and be able to navigate the search results in the form of a web rather than the traditional listed results that Amazon searches currently give. While the novelty may attract some, I would rather type in search to Amazon and receive clear results. Flowser's results were not enjoyable to navigate; only a few fit on the screen and clicking the screen to move it around to browse all the results became tedious. The traditional Amazon search results are much easier to maneuver. Also, an entire section of the search results web had nothing to do with my search for 'Boer War,' listing a palm pilot, a wireless router, and other electronics.

Rentometre seems much more useful. It allows viewers to enter information about their rent; i.e. location and rent and compares it to other rentals in the area. Although there are other ways of comparing rent they are generally more labour intensive, i.e. searching listings for similar locations and accommodation or require access to realtors' databases. This site is a great example of how technology can be used as a tool to make things easier.

The Top 10 Highest Paid Business Women in America site was also interesting, though less useful due to the information is presented. The site plotted the location of the ten highest paid business women in America. As an aside, I think it is interesting that all but one (who is listed in New Jersey) of the women are located in California or New York. Though the site was clean and clear the information it was presenting was relatively simple, perhaps too simple to need a map to explain.

Blue Okapi was an interesting but not especially unique idea; it has a map of the globe with icons in areas where pictures were taken. As with Flowser, I found too little or poorly explained directions, making it difficult to benefit from all the functions the site offered. I don't really see the relevance of the site. Perhaps it could be improved by making sub-sites that focused on certain topics that would allow people around the world who shared an interest to communicate or meet. For example, several of the photos are of cats, maybe a site for cat-lovers to exchange information, photos...would give the site more focus and usefulness. Similarly, I think that this concept could be great as a travel site. Viewers could select places they would like to visit and see photos, advice, etc. from people who had been there.

As with many internet technologies, the programmable webs seem more linked to expressions of personality that creating useful systems for general consumption. This is logical; these webs likely take a great deal of time and effort that people are generally only likely to expend if they're interested in their project or getting paid. Rentometre was a good example of how these webs can be designed to be useful to a larger audience. I think programmable webs have a great potential for education. In history, webs could be used to make learning more interactive by having students use or create webs based on areas of historical interest to them.


Along Came a Spider...

This week I chose to look at the application of spiders to websites. I ran several of my favourite history websites through Search Engine Spider Simulator, the Backlink Anchor Text Analyzer and the Keyword Density Checker. I knew that spiders sought out keywords but I was surprised by how much content was lost through the process. The spidered text that was displayed listed only the main menu at most. For the victorianweb the spider listed only the small menu text on the side of the main page and ignored the large content menu that fills the main page.

The spidered text also frequently included largely irrelevant aspects of the site. For example the victorianweb spidered text referred to the University of Singapore twice in the five line site summary. The University of Singapore is one of the partner universities of the site, but this information is hardly the most pertinent that the site has to offer. There was a better chance to get some useful information by following the spidered links throughout the website; this took more time and gave less information than actually browsing the original site itself, raising the question: what was the purpose of using a spider?

The keyword density checker is interesting and does have potential but it encounters the same limitations as the spider search - it fails to incorporate the content of the site into its summary. The keyword cloud was an interesting visual way to illustrate the presence of terms; but the program is so inapplicable to relevant site material that it loses any value aside from asthetic. These programs are simply unable to discern relevant content information; I find them largely useless.

Also, as a personal bias, I do not like the inclusion of ads, by Google, on each page. While this would be more understandable or even possibly useful if the ads were for relevant items, as is the ads barely touch on relevancy to the site content. For example, on the spider's results of the victorianweb I was besieged with ads for Queens School of Business, Christmas tree ornaments, and DJ services.


Is the Sky Falling?

As I was doing the readings for this week I was struck by the same theme that permeates most of the articles on the topic of digital history and historians in the digital age: fear. Fear that somehow this new more accessible system of information will overwhelm and undermine the role of historians in this brave new world. Each week I have wondered if this is an alarmist position, similar perhaps to the 'sky is falling' cries of Y2K. Is it really possible that a new form of technology and communication, regardless of how revolutionary, can so radically displace our social systems? Will this process of the democratization of knowledge be looked back on as academic secularization? As religion moved out of churches, will knowledge and learning move out of universities and libraries?

Monday, October 23, 2006


Up the 'River' Without a Paddle

I originally planned to spend this week's activity on the 'Experimenting with Regular Expressions.' Several hours of frustration and questioning by intellect, or lack thereof and I moved on instead to the exercise on taglines. I thought I may be at a disadvantage since I came into the class after some tagline aspects had already been discussed and also because taglines seem to play a larger (i.e. existant) role in the Public History program.

Regardless, I really enjoyed looking at the different ways that taglines have been used. The most interesting part of the Micah Dubinko article was the links to other visual information sites including Map the the Market, The Shape of Song, and Moodstats. I did not find the article itself particularly interesting and several of the links he referenced did not work, making hard to fully understand his perspective.

In Flickr I found the 'river' visual too fast moving. Also, the pictures continued to move after I had paused the flow when the mouse hovered on them. In general I found the visual to be unclear and hard to follow. The 'waterfall; feature was more clear although still not very interesting visually, not because of lack of movement but because of the small photos.

I did find it interesting that the river observed tagline popularity changing with time, while the waterfall conversely focused on what tags stay the same. I think this shows the two major themes of general historical study and thought; in history are we studying change or continuity. Both I would say but the Flickr options certainly highlight the difference of one from the other.

Map of the Market was slow to load but very fast once up. It had a clear legend, good use of colour, and relevant variables to display. By float mouse on sections you get thorough information including earnings and financials. You can refine the visual by selecting criteria including: gainers, losers, and changing colour scheme. The program also has a search option which gives many categories once a company is found such as news, quotes, competition, earnings, and financial reports.

The Shape of Song
would especially be interesting for those with more musical knowledge. The site has clear instructions, is not cluttered, and you can upload your own songs via MIDI file to add to the repertoire. The explaination of how diagrams work/are created help to understand the process behind the visual expression of the songs. The Images Gallery option shows several songs, their diagram and an explanation for the visual further aiding the musically impaired understand the links between the audio and visual aspects of the song.

Moodstats let's you enter daily data, the incentive being it allows you to track your moods. The installation process is somewhat long ans although the homepage says you get it free for 20 days to 'synchronize' you need a purchased serial number. The settings for mood categories are not very interesting to me visually; it looks like audio adjustments with slide pointers than you move to reflect your mood in each category per day. The program is not always clear i.e. how to save data, nor does the dark screen maximise forcing some eye squinting. In the site's defence you can add notes in each category, per day. Overall though I'd rather a pen and paper.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Teachers: Educators or Entertainers?

Two comments from the readings this week have really been sticking in my mind. I'm hoping that by getting them out in a blog, and hopefully getting some feedback, I can get a sense of calm and complete my readings for my other courses. As it is, I keep relating WWI British society to digital is, obviously my mind is disturbed. The article that drew my abnormally intense interest was the John Bonnett article “Following in Rabelais’ Footsteps: Immersive History and the 3D Virtual Buildings Project.” In the article he expresses the opinion that it is the role of historians to encourage students to participants in their history education. Later in the article he goes on to say that in order to interest and encourage tinvolvementent of students historians should look to pop culture for inspiration.

A year or two ago my reaction to this concept would have been something like this: don't want to learn? Fine, someone's got to pump gas. Harsh? Yes. (Take this as a caution before sending your kids to a low socio-economic school.) My current viewpoint is more accepting of Bonnett's ideas but with certain caveats. My main objection Bonnett and the theories he is proposing is that I fear that there is a thin line between using enjoyable and interactive techniques and technologies to help students learn and forcing teachers to be entertainers rather than educators. I do believe that the growth technologyogy can be hugely important to drawing students interest and that this is a very worthwhile pursuit.

In museums I think that this is even more important than in high schools and universities. Museums have the difficult task of trying to draw in the general public, which includes a diversity of interests and abilities. In such situations, the conveyance of any information is admirable, and 'hooks' such as computer games, VR, etShoulduld be liberally incorporated in museums.

However, in schools the emphasis should be more on learning than 'having fun'. Obviously as a graduate student, willing to devote yet another year and shovel load of student debt to formal education, I do not consider school and fun to mutuallylly exclusive. Conversely, I have to acknowledge that most people do judging by the fact that "Why?" is the most common response when I tell people I'm in a Master's program. In educational settings, technology such as Bonnett's fascinating 3-D Virtual Building Project are wonderful tools for encouraging and enhancing student learning. But they are just that, tools. The essential focus is still learning itself.

Also, youths, especially teenagers, seem to have an infinite ability to become bored with anything, including technology. When I was teaching in a high school last year I asked my associate teacher if I should prepare powerpoint presentations. She replied that students are actually becoming bored by them, because they are the general method used; using the chalkboard drew more interest and interaction. I believe it is important to use 'oltechniquesics as well as new technologies stimulateate learning. New is not always better and anything in too large a dose becomes tedious.

I think it is also important not to condition kids to believe they they have a right to have fun at all times. When teaching, I tried to intersperse the less interactive and interesting aspects of the subject matter (i.e. reading, independent work) with more interesting lessons that used internet simulation games, reenactmentsnts, and historical puzzles (it took me most of my Xmas vacation but it was worth it when none of my students left class for a smoke break.) Please don't misinterpret what I am saying. I want to make learning enjoyable for students and encourage them. However, a part of learning must be directly internally. We must not attempt to compensate by bombarding students externally.


Let's Get More Students Living a 'Second Life'

When I read through the options for assignments for this week I was immediately interested in the Second Life option. I clicked on the link to Second Life with my presumptions firmly in place. I thought I would be entering a computer fantasy land, comparable to a computer or video game. I was interested to view behind-the-scenes of the section of our population that seems to prefer or at least find more convenient interaction via computer rather than personal contact. My pre-formed idea that this would be little more than a video game of some sort made me confident that I would investigate the site and type up my researched blog, never to think of Second Life again.

While a lack of comfort with computers means that I doubt I will become a citizen of Second Life, I do have a new view of computer 'fantasy' sites, their creativity and potential application to academic learning. Second Life is an entire world. You establish a character to represent you and go about life much as you would in the 'real world,' albeit with keystrokes rather than footsteps.

The most interesting aspect of Second Life is how you can buy land and open businesses. According to the website over $400,000 US has been spend by residents of Second Life in the program in the last 24 hours. Second Life has approximately 900,000 residents in total of which at least 10,000 seem to be on at any given time.

I think that this program and ones like it have tremendous potential for learning. To be able to create interactive sites like this based on courses, universities, disciplines could help make learning more enjoyable. Granted it could be hard to keep the focus on learning, but sites could be designed so that instead of buying property etc. with money such things are bought with points derived from achievement. One example could be that residents of the site have to interact with a minimum member of other residents, or answer certain questions, visit certain virtual historical locations set up in the 'world.' Doing so would earn them points that they could spend within the site.

Aside from this direct application to learning, I believe Second Life is also beneficial in that it encourages creativity and interaction, even though it is online. I also think that 'realistic' websites like this could be helpful for youths to acclimatize them to later life. The more realistic a website can be in showing money, spending, and costs I think can only be a benefit to educationing kids and teens on how to manage in 'real' life.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Blogging, Yea or Nay?

When I began looking at the topics of the articles for this week's readings, I had a knee-jerk reaction: of course blogging should not influence an academic career. But as I read through the articles I actually found myself starting to change my mind although perhaps not for the same reasons as Yale. Academics exist in the world, they aren't separate from it. It seems that Yale sees this as negative, that their faculty is to observe but not participate in the world at large. Snobbery of technology likely also fits in. Although Yale is one of the forerunners in allowing lectures to be posted on the internet it seems to be, at best, ambivalent about the use of blogging by its faculty to increase their profile. I guess blogging, still relatively new, hasn't the respectability that time brings. After all in terms of technology the internet is ancient.

While I don't agree with Yale, I do agree that they have the right to hire, or not hire, according to how they want their institution perceived. By blogging academics are placing themselves in a more visible and public position which makes them more open to criticism. Blogging can serve a useful and academic purpose in connecting academics to each other, but then why not correspond through email or set up an academic blog site?

By blogging on open internet sites academics are clearly intending to communicate to the general public. This could be wonderfully useful for enhancing general knowledge and interest in some fields, but it can also lead to criticisms. Popularity and academic respectability have traditionally been seen as opposites. With the perpetual funding crunch in the last years, especially in fields like history, this belief has been diminishing. Professors are now encouraged to publish not only academic articles, but books that could appeal to a broader audience; but always remaining on relatively non-controversial topics. It is still often perceived that academics should not wade into the mire of current politics and public opinion. While Yale's reasons for not renewing Juan Cole's position may be wrong, it is still their right to do so.


Experimenting with Network Interfaces

This week I chose to look at concept network interfaces. I started with the McCord Museum's concept network interface designed by Thinkmap. I have mixed feelings on its usefulness. It was interactive but I did also find it hard to find more specific information. Despite the fact that the visual map is designed as a web, moving along the tendrils of the web does not mean you narrow your search.

For example, I clicked on larger category of paintings, prints, and drawings. Then I clicked on the subtopic of paintings; so far so good as I found a good slection of paintings of various subjects, styles, and time periods. Encouraged by my success I began to get more interested in the system and wanted to find some more specific paintings, so I chose the branch of the web labelled 'female'. I expected to see portraits either of women or maybe by women. Instead, there were photographs, a different subtopic.

While playing around on the visual map was fun and interactive, it's likely not very useful to anyone looking for a specific topic. The use of different colours for different topics and subtopics helped but the orange is hard to see on some computer screens. Perhaps they could have used the colours more effectively to group related topics or the distinguish between topics and subtopics. The web lines themselves are difficult to follow when there are several offshoots, making it hard to know which topics are linked to each other. I liked how the words of the topics enlarge when you hover on it with the mouse but even this was sometimes difficult because the web is constently moving. Sometimes one heading is behind another, forcing you to wait for it to move to click on it. All in all I think this design has a great deal of potential. As it stands it is entertaining but unhelpful.

Other examples of concept network interfaces on the Visual Complexity website were also interesting. There are many examples of styles and purposes for which these visuals are and can be used for. Some of them were very helpful and useful. One example of this is the visual that plots the distribution of orthologous gene groups. I don't know what those are but the thinkmap was a great example of the usefulness of these maps. The map provided a visual representation of findings that could not be easily described in words. Sure you can explain that there were some clustered areas but it doesn't convey the information as a visual does. Especially in areas like the sciences I could see this being very helpful for research, teaching and presentation.

History could also benefit by showing various relationships between people, events, and themes. Visual representations are rarely used in history in my experience. There is a movement to include more visual points of interest but this is generally expressed as an overhead of a painting or potrait. History is multi-layered and often complex, with lots of agents working together, or against each other. The use of visual maps could help students better understand the 'big picture' and interconnections of history.

But quality and applicability of concept network interfaces is not equal. As seen with the McCord Museum map, it isn't just the inclusion but the design that makes it useful, or not. Many of the examples on the visual complexity site were more identifiable as a form of modern art than a tool for learning. It highlights the need for these maps to be clear, precise, and well organized. One of the best examples of this is the tube map on the site. Perhaps I'm showing my own bias; maybe not everyone has wanted to design their thinkmap for a teaching or learning purpose. For some it may be more a form of expression. I can't argue with that, but it does show two different categories for thinkmaps: expression and education. While one is not better than the other, I am personally more interested in the application of thinkmaps for education.

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