Tuesday, June 30, 2009

History: Enough with the Quizzes

I came across the Dominion Institute's newest quiz this morning. The quiz involves identifying famous Canadians based on their photographs. It included everyone from Wayne Gretzky to Sir. Fredrick Banting. The Dominion Institute issues these quizzes knowing full well that most Canadians will do poorly on them. The resultant statistics then make for timely Globe and Mail or National Post articles around Canada Day in which we are shamed for our lack of Canadian history knowledge.

I took the quiz, and got 10 out of 10, but not without a great deal of difficulty. In one case (Nelly McClung), I had to figure out the answer by process of elimination, ruling out Celine Dion and Michelle Jean from the list of choices.

The average Canadian did much poorer than I did. But, who cares? Why is it only history that we have to quiz? How come the Physics institute of Canada doesn't go around polling everyday Canadians with 3rd year physics problems, only to complain we have been neglecting our physics, as a nation?

So, I've created my own 1 question chemistry quiz, of comparable difficulty level:

Identify the following molecule:

Apple Juice, Butter, Mustard, Saturated Fat, Vitamin C, Garlic, Aspartame, Hydro-Chloric Acid, Yeast, Caffeine, Tomato Juice, Folic Acid, Vitamin B12, Chlorinated Salt, Vitric Acid.


If you didn't recognize that as Caffeine, you're either evidence that chemistry isn't given enough funding / emphasis / time in schools, or that's just not something that's ever been important enough to your life to memorize or learn how to interpret.

Enough with the quizzes. People don't like to be shown how stupid they are. Not everyone yearns to play trivial pursuit. And, the inability to recognize a remote historic figure is not a sign that Canadian people are stupid.

If you'd like to take the quiz it is available here (for now): http://www.dominion.ca/

Monday, June 29, 2009

Digital Humanities: Where to Begin?

I was speaking with someone today with a MA in History, who was interested in getting involved with the digital humanities. She's keen to learn, but didn't know where to start.

My suggestion: take the best essay you think you've ever written and turn it into a webpage.

This will ground you in principles that will be forever useful as you progress to bigger and more complex projects, and it will give you a tangible 'deliverable' that you can be proud of. It is also something that you can teach yourself to do, with little instruction and a lot of experimentation.

Creating a simple website has many advantages. A lot of the advanced work you will do as a digital humanist will require you to work with webpages. This may involve dissecting pages from their source code, to extract content. You'd expect your surgeon to know what was connected to your knee bone; and I'd expect my digital humanist to know what was in my <:head> tag.

Also, markup, which is the language-type simple websites are written in, is much easier to learn than programming languages that use commands, such as JavaScript or Python.

To get started, see my previous post "Putting a History Essay Online".

What about the other digital humanists out there? What's the best first step for an aspiring student?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Collaboratron: an experiment in physical computing

Today is #hackday. Devon Elliott approached me about using a system called "Trackmate" to create a cool user interaction. At it's most basic level, Trackmate sends a message to your computer when an object is placed on a special platform (made out of a piece of plexiglas bought at the dollar store). We wrote a program in Processing which created a visualization that changed depending on which objects a user had put on our plexiglas platform.

In our case, we decided to use the Network in Canadian History & Environment's (NiCHE) member list as our dataset. When they signed up, each of our members were able to choose up to 45 research interest areas. The idea was that this information could be used to help people find those with like interests. Our system used a physical object to represent each of those 45 research interests. Users can put one or several of the objects on the platform and the program will create a dynamic display which will recommend potential collaborators based on the user's selections.

It's just a prototype at this point, but since today is #hackday, we thought we'd share what we've got so far. You can take a look at a video on the NiCHE website.