About Me

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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A metaphor

OK, this is for the scratchpad function of this blog, where I just want to stick down some ideas in case they can be turned from into something more interesting. This one's about the problem of splitting structure, style and content and still retaining meaning. It's the same deal wherever you look in computing, especially where there's communicative intent. Building a web page, constructing reusable learning objects, musing the semantic web, it's the same issue for everyone, and although we may try to embed semantic markup into the content there's stuff that can't really be captured like that.

It struck me that music, and especially musical performances, are like that. You lose meaning by disaggregating it; musical scores are examples of instructions for the reconstitution of a piece in the knowledge that each performer and performance will still be an interpretation of these instructions – the score is not the piece.

To split out the notes and the rhythm is many cases is relatively straightforward, although unless the former are sequenced it's no use. So, a sequence of notes, already arguably an aggregate, is the starting point, plus the timings of each and probably indication of instrument. So far so MIDI. In addition there may be notation of expression or technique (hand to use, groupings, slurs, stress and timing changes, grace notes, crescendos, descriptions of feeling). But whilst this may work for the score it will not suffice for a performance, where infinite indescribable gradations of expression cannot effectively be isolated from the rhythm, notes or tone. In other words, where content is readily captured in discrete units such as lexicon or numbers, it can be disaggregated, but not all aspects of an item's content can be captured in this way and not all elements may be split apart if they lose communicative intent by that process. And it follows that words within text that has been fully marked up with a thorough ontology are still not going to carry their full meaning as this comes not from the ontology but (at least) from the whole context.


Reading Heim, Chapter 6

He's discussing the need for humans to adapt to their tools and to interfaces (he distinguishes between the two, the former not adapting to the user except in the most primitive way). This has always been the case, though; as we work with new tools or systems they "govern our psychology" [p79] and do so all the more readily if the interface is good and the fit natural. It's rare that a complete and perfect solution is found to a problem - Oldowan tools helped but could be improved; iconographic writing systems developed into symbolic – and the always force a change in our behaviour. Whereas a "perfect" solution might arguably required nothing of us but fit with existing behaviour, or the behaviour we wish to indulge (at least by the logic of Heim's words). But in fact the way that we move forward is not simply by solving problems in such a way that the solution won't change our behaviour, but by finding that the answers create new questions or needs to be answered to improve our fit with the world – or at least show us the inadequacies of that solution and force us to look elsewhere.

We can see this by the physical changes in humans, too, adapting to fit behavioural solutions to problems: squatting facets indicating that behaviour rather than sitting; development of dominant hand/thumb in response to behaviour (Bimson et al.); knees and toes to kneeling to weave etc. So yes, interfaces require us to adapt, mentally and/or physically. It may be that with technological approaches we often have the option to design systems that could fit seamlessly and invisibly with our existing behaviour and thoughts, but usually this is explicitly avoided – design is intended to require explicit conscious choices from the user and this means that the controls must be sufficiently distinguished from those actions already being carried out for other reasons. It would be no food if a system read every movement of a hand through the air as a command, but touches to a screen of a mouse may be read differently.


Friday, November 24, 2006

What is technology?

From the Saturday Guardian (18/11/2006):

'Technology,' a sage once observed, 'is stuff that doesn't work yet.'
That sounds like a joke, and it is, but it is also a crucial truth about
what technology is and does: we perceive something to be technology only
when it is still new and, like most new things, not quite working the
way it's supposed to. Nobody thinks that the wheel is technology, though
it's as important a piece of technology as humanity has ever invented;
the book is an unimprovable masterpiece of technology, and relies on
another, arguably the most consequential piece of technology there has
ever been, the alphabet. But because you don't often find yourself
waiting 45 minutes on a helpline trying to connect to Alphabet Technical
Support in Bangalore, you probably don't think of the alphabet as a
piece of technology.

It is when people stop thinking of something as a piece of technology
that the thing starts to have its biggest impact...

Ross and I had a conversation some time back about how stuff that's
self-consciously "technological" goes out of date so fast - how uncool
old iMacs are in a museum now. I guess we could rephrase it to being
consipicuously or evidently technological. If it's not conspicuous then
it won't seem technological or otherwise, it will just be, and it won't
seem old or new for like reasons.


From O'Reilly Radar(http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2006/11/raph_koster_cop.html),
remarks on Raph Koster's post at VentureBeat
) regarding copybots and the point
that "products can't be businesses, only services" - much like Ken
Hamma's message at MCN 2006.

Monday, November 20, 2006

From Brian Kelly's blog

"Risk Assessment For Use Of Third Party Web 2.0 Services" from UKOLN (introduced at http://ukwebfocus.wordpress.com/2006/11/17/risk-assessment-for-use-of-third-party-web-20-services/#more-19) looks promising. The assessment
itself is here: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/web-focus/events/workshops/webmaster-2006/risk-assessment/

Folksonomy debate

Lots to say on MCN conference but for now just a note on a debate on the MCN list right now. Nick Poole responded to an article by Elaine Peterson on D-Lib (doi:10.1045/november2006-peterson) with the following:

I was really interested in the post around the 'Beneath
the Metadata' article.

I actually think the article has some pretty deep flaws.
First of all, it is not entirely clear why you would apply these philosophical
constructs to Folksonomy in the first place and secondly I don't think it helps
to further the understanding of what Folksonomy and 'traditional' cataloguing
are and how they might work together.

The article essentially says that classification is about
absolutes - this horse is white, that box is empty - whereas Folksonomy is about
subjectivity and relativism. It goes on to compare classification with
propositional logic and states that Folksonomy by its nature gives rise
logical contradiction. It strikes me that this misses a significant part of the
real value of the approach.

In her article, Elaine Peterson says that when we
catalogue, we are asking the question 'What is it?'. I couldn't disagree more.
What we are really asking is 'What are we going to call this thing (and things
relevantly similar to it)?'. In this sense, 'traditional' classification is an
act of collective relativism, and is equally subject to the flaws of
subjectivity as Folksonomy.

I have no doubt that the wave around Folksonomy will
eventually pass, and I very much hope that what will be left is an enriched
approach to professional classification.

There is considerable strength in a hybrid approach which
retains the intellectual rigour of ontological standardisation but which equally
recognises the additional potential value of large-scale subjective
term-attribution. For example, would it not validate our professional
beliefs if the subjective interpretations of tens of thousands of people
translated up into patterns of meaning which confirmed them? And similarly, if
they don't, wouldn't there be considerable value in asking why not?

Finally, whatever the linguistic consistency or validity of
folksonomic thesauri, we must never underestimate the importance of letting
people in.

The act of tagging is only partly to do with
classification. It is an affirmative act which says 'I want to be involved' and
for that alone, it is of tremendous value.

Interesting to read his thoughts, I wonder if they are developing in this direction as the SW thinktank progresses?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Simulacra/mwr portal proposal - it's Magic!

Met with Andy yesterday in Winchester. Amongst the issues discussed was
the possibility of a MoL/MWR collaboration on a pilot for a portal,
following on from initial discussions in July. Together with Martyn and
Sam (lead developer), we discussed what the project was really about
now. As there seems to be no sign of money from the DfES as yet, it's
really about coming up with something that is (a) manageable with
relatively little expenditure of effort or cash on either side and (b)
will offer a concept that is appealingly different to MWR's current
Magic offering both for us (and other museums) and for DfES or other

What we were discussing was the sort of portal concept that was mooted
in the meeting. I would hope that the idea of a single place where any
museum could deposit assets for use in learning objects and where any
teacher (or other user) could go to to put them together would prove
appealing to DfES, MLA and the like, and they might finally be
encouraged to fund some sort of central resource for the benefit of all
museums. A portal like this would be very different from the current
scenario with Magic, where you might have your own installation or an
MWR-hosted one but which wouldn't cut across institutional boundaries -
being part of a hub would give our own assets much wider appeal than if
they were available only in the context of other assets from the same
single museum. The other aspect of interest to museums (I argued)
would be the availability of an API so that we could integrate our own
sites with the portal/hub site. This might let us offer a search engine
within LO to bring back learning objects that had been built with our
assets, or that we had flagged up as "approved". We would want to work
with Simulacra to ensure that useful metadata were available, and we'd
want to work with them on the sort of functionality the API might offer.

What this would require from us might be as simple as a set of assets
and metadata for them to play with. I suggested that we could export a
few hundred/thousand objects with images (or really images with basic
metadata) from the collections DB I use behind the websites. This could
include a few sound and text files too. Jane might want to add a couple
of items from LO too - perhaps some video - but there wouldn't be much
work involved.

I think that we agreed that they would go an have a think and come up
with a more conrete proposal that both we and the DfES might work to.
But hopefully the requirements from us in these initial stages would be
pretty low - it would be pretty trivial to export a set of data and
image files for them to play with. How much effort we'd then want to put
in would probably depend on them securing funds, but potentially we
could set the agenda in quite an interesting project.