Through the Terminal…

Alice through the terminal?This semester I’m taking a class outside of the Library Science box. It’s called Information Visualization, which sounds fun and friendly, but which I am quickly learning is code for “data mining and statistical analysis, with pictures.” I realize that my adventures in Libraryland haven’t been very technical yet, but this semester all that’s about to change. Last week I spent a frustrating 48 hours attempting to install BeautifulSoup on my computer, a program that parses HTML and XML data from websites. We were then asked to copy some code, read it from the terminal, and generate a .txt file of data scraped from web pages. This blog post is an adaptation of our second assignment for the class, in which we were asked to reflect on our goals and objectives for the semester.

As you may know, I graduated from a small liberal arts college with a degree in English literature, so the elements of computer science (programming, coding. etc.) that we’re learning in this class are more unfamiliar to me than a foreign language. In fact, that’s often how I feel when I’m doing the reading and assignments: like they’re speaking in another tongue. I’d like to think I have an excellent command the English language, so it is disconcerting for me to realize just how much I don’t understand. For example, a week ago I would have told you that a “terminal” is what we call a gateway at train stations and airports, or an adjective that means “occurring at the end of something.” The word’s most recent definition of “a device for feeding data into a computer or receiving its output,” which had its first recorded use in 1954, never occurred to me (OED).

Coding: The code that we were trying to write last week was in Python, a so called programming language. And although I’m comfortable with “syntax,” the errors I ran into weren’t in the rules of grammar I’ve learned. This part of the class has already proved challenging for me, but I’m starting with a genuine desire to learn something new. I don’t expect to be a programmer by the end of this class and I know that this is the very tip of what proves to be a titanic iceberg. Therefore, my objective for coding is to learn more than I know now (not hard), and to begin to understand some of the basic tools of data science.

Statistics: Statistical analysis is more new territory for me, although these mathematical concepts are slightly more familiar. I wouldn’t say I’m good with numbers, though I did enjoy a sociology research methods class that I took in college. I’m interested in patterns and relationships, but I admit to being more drawn to qualitative as opposed to quantitative data. My objective here is simply to be able to manipulate my data sets to find information that is meaningful to my audience.

Design: Finally, as a few others have said, the design element is really what drew me to this class. It’s the reward at the end of the hard work and frustration that’ll inevitably occur as a result of the technical and mathematical steps listed above. I like design and I’ve worked with it in different capacities over the years, first as a yearbook editor and now as a marketing assistant. I haven’t had much formal training, but I’d like to think I have a strong sense of aesthetics and I enjoy graphic art. In this area, I’ll be interested to look into a more formal analysis of design elements that I might tend to like or dislike instinctually.

This gives you a sense of my background and skill set, because my goals are still relatively amorphous. Among other things I hope that this class will give me a glimpse into a world I know precious little about. My first encounter with the terminal left me feeling a bit like Alice peering through the looking glass. Fortunately for me, command line isn’t like Wonderland, because computer-land is ruled by logic. Therefore, once I have the basics, the landscape should begin to unfold around me in a way that makes more sense. I found this blogging exercise helpful, because it has forced me to shape more concrete goals from my initially vague desire to “learn new stuff.” Like Alice who asks, “which way I ought to go from here?” we must realize that our direction “depends on where you want to get to” (Carroll 57). And if we don’t have a place in mind, “than it doesn’t matter which way you go” (57). If my goals are still less than clear, I take comfort in the fact that the Cheshire cat promises that you’re sure to get somewhere “if only you walk long enough” (57).

Sources: Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland and Adventures Through the Looking Glass. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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