Hi, I'm Alex, and I'm a software engineer specialising in Topic maps, Information architecture, Interface and interaction design, XSLT and Claudio Monteverdi. I'm the author of xSiteable Project (Open-Source site creation tool) and a handful of articles, and spend most of my working time wondering about the meaning of knowledge and dogs.
Popular articles and musings found here
Thu, 1 Dec 2005 13:00:00 GMT
Libraries : A crash and a break
My harddrive at work committed suicide earlier this week. It wasn't as bad as most of my work is on various development servers and repositories, but the framework and tools to write this website went down the tubes. I probably have an old copy somewhere, and I could redo a lot of it to put things back to normal again.
But I won't do that. Today at the library we launced the National Treasures website which uses my new handy-dandy Topic Maps based framework, and I've been meaning to redo my site for this framework. I guess I now have the perfect excuse to do so.
So on that note, I'll just have a little blogging break while I'm at it as well. See you soon.Permalink (Thu, 1 Dec 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments
Mon, 14 Nov 2005 13:00:00 GMT
Libraries : culture by proxy, epistomological musings and perceived freedom from technology
[update!] Denham Grey talks about Social knowledge, 'Why I believe knowledge is constructed, emergent, ephemeral and tied to a community', which ties in nicely with what I (think I) say about how culture is knowledge.
I work as an information and knowledge pimp at The National Library of Australia. Let me state for the record that I do love my job despite my frustrations with it and the library world at times. I soundly believe that my love comes more from potentials I see here than things that are done, and this post will try to explain this.
Let's talk about what a library is first. At the core sits 'collection of books and periodicals', and on top of that, with the advent of newer technologies, ' libraries are now also repositories and access points for maps, prints or other artwork, microfilm, microfiche, audio tapes, CDs, LPs, video tapes and DVDs, and provide public facilities to access CD-ROM databases and the Internet.' And with 'recent thinking' thrown into the mix, 'libraries are understood as extending beyond the physical walls of a building, providing assistance in navigating and analyzing tremendous amounts of knowledge with a variety of digital tools.'
My job here at the National Library of Australia is 'web technology manager' (a different name for project wrangler and over-geek of all things involving the web), and I'm involved in all sorts of projects, from the public website to resource search services to exhibition sites (not open yet) to the intranet and a dozen applications within.
In the beginning
When I started working here, I started with a mission statement which is still with me; to promote and use Topic Maps to bring the library properly into the knowledge representation world, usability and information architecture to promote good design, and funnel ideas and cultural junctions of interest through open communication in ways to evolve and nurture my love of epistomology.
Unfortunately, it seems that most people meet their 'Gradus ad Parnassum' of Knowledge Representation and good design a lot earlier than I would like it to be. The hurdle of going from information wrangler to knowledge worker within contextual design is a huge one for most people, featuring steep learning curves, new paradigms, academic baggage and 'opinion-over-standards' essays, not too different from this one. What to do? Cause a storm.
 In musical terms, the 'Gradus ad Parnassum', in addition to be a book on counterpoint and possibly because of its defining nature of that most important part of musical theory known as 'counterpoint', is often used as the definition of some musical category, often referring to a hard and complex piece of music or a technique, or musicians. For example, the 'Gradus ad Parnassum' of church organ music is often said to be the Trio Sonata No. 6 by JS Bach.
Lately I caused a teapot storm within the geeky library world. I think I caused my own reputation more harm than I did good to the library world, although I did actually receive some positive feedback (unfortunately, almost exclusively in private emails. Hmm.). I also tried to engage in the geeky library world without getting any response. Yes, you might say this is an isolated occurrence, but the fact of the matter is that speaking with other likeminded people (and you should check the excelent comment number 8 in my link above from Daniel Harrison for one of those like-minded people, although sadly he is no longer with us as you shall read ...) I discover that dreaded 'Not Invented Here' coupled with 'fixing our own problems first' syndrome.
Not invented here
So let's talk about 'Not invented here' first, because surely, we're all guilty of this one from time to time. For example, lately I dug into the ANSI/NISO Z39.88 -2004 standard, better known as OpenURL. I was looking at it critically, I have to admit, comparing it to what I already knew about Web Services, SOA, http, Google/Amazon/Flickr/Del.icio.us API's, and various Topic Maps and semantic web technologies (I was the technical editor of Explorers Guide to the Semantic Web)
I think I can sum up my experiences with OpenURL as such; why? Why have the library world invented a new way of doing things that already can be done quite well already? Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the standard per se (except a pretty darn awful choice of name!!), so I'm not here criticising the technical merits and the work put into it. No, it's a simple 'why' that I have yet to get a decent answer to, even after talking to the OpenURL bigwigs about it. I mean, come on; convince me! I'm not unreasonable, no truly, really, I just want to be convinced that we need this over anything else.
So, is this me ;
'Not invented here' is what forces organisations to reinvent whatever wheel they think they need.
Fixing our own problems first
Oh boy, this one is a tough one; did the chicken or the egg come first? Humans have argued both sides and alternatives since the dawn of, well, chickens, and we'll probably still argue well beyond the last one.
Similary, how can we fix everybodys problem when everybody is busy fixing their own problem? You would think that sharing solutions would do the trick, but that somehow implies that all legacy is equal, which it absolutely is not. We're all stuck in our individual legacy hells, and we can't get out because we're all to busy getting out. The advent of truly open data storage standards is the very key to save ourselves from ourselves! Sure, protocols are nice, and we couldn't do much without them, but truth be told, we can do even less without open data storage formats. And my assertion is that all legacy in the library world stems from this fact, yet we don't make it perfectly clear to neither ourselves nor our vendors that open data formats is a requirement for any system. Instead they've chosen to wrap the data storage problem in an open data access layer, for example with OpenURL. Shouldn't we fight for freedom first, and the right to party after?
Sure, there's MARC XML as the de facto open data storage format. Insert hysterical laughter here; whenever I lecture about bad schema design, I always point to this one. It is embraced by vendors because it gives us percieved freedom, yet with ugly tie-in to legacy systems. Don't get me started. MODS is one understandable step up, two lossy non-embracing steps to the side. XOBIS is experimental. FRBR is cute and smells of semantic modelling, but soaked in 'Not invented here'. There are others as well, giving hints to the lack of a unified and thoughtful way forward.
In the library world, the function of the comitee is supposed to solve a part of this problem, be it a standards committee or a working committee or a coffee-brewing committee, all sharing another huge problem that it is hard to get away from. Of course, now there are more improptu technological advances that offer mailing-lists, IRC channels and instant messaging for more open means of communication. I'm inclined to think they would certainly help out in trying to be more flexible with how we go about using and sharing technology in the future, but there are a few pitfalls there as well, for example the lack of formalities, or, as often is the case, we're all too busy fixing our own problems so we overlook and ignore grassroots solutions.
People are people; libraries are not libraries
It always come down to people, no matter if it is being a president or flipping burgers. Personal skill and vision is more important now than ever; the role and function of the library is dramatically changing. At the top of this post it became clear that at the core of the library is the book, no matter how you want to twist the meaning of 'library' to fit your hopeful future direction, and the book is dying. Professional books are probably gone in 30 years, at least in any fulfilling way such as it is today. So what to do?
There is one thing that isn't talked about much in the library world, and is totally absent in the geeky part of it; culture. Libraries are carriers of culture, not knowledge! It is one cultures percieved baggage that is stored in the library hull, not some accumulated knowledge, or understanding of information, nor the actual writings themselves. We have only the traditional understanding of the library from the curator perspective, but this needs to change. We need to embrace and promote the culture within, not guard it like a prized collection item. In 50 years, no one cares about the printed book in the dungeon, but they certainly care about the culture that produced it, just like we should care about promoting it, creating systems that grant access to it.
And then there's the clinch; culture is not books, but people. Let's go back and take another hard look at epistomology which for me links culture and people to our perceived knowledge. I belive firmly in representationalism, or otherwise known as proxy thinking; that all things are percieved by proxy, that we see things not as they are, but as they are seen through our tools such as our eyes and brain. Given the nature of tools, as passive but interactionable objects to our disposal, we all percieve things differently dependant on what our tool is like. The shere amount of neurons and couplings that are different from person to person given us a good hint that all perceived knowledge cannot be constant, nor singular.
'Culture' is one word that tries somewhat haphazardly to join perceived experiences from many people into one fuzzy blob we can talk about and understand. I personally feel that the lack of this focus when we librarians (or as the case is with myself, a perceived wannabe librarian) talk about our world is the very thing that will be our demise!
The book will change, and unless the library changes with it, the library will disappear. Should we not focus more on the culture we are made from than on the objects in our collection? Our collection is one more proxied perception away from the real thing; a curator for a collection is yet another hop away; an exhibition from a curator about objects in a collection that belongs on a shelf in section three of a building in Dixon is so many hops away from the real thing that it becomes nothing more than a museum.
So, is that what we are? Or perhaps more importantly; is that what we want to be?Permalink (Mon, 14 Nov 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments (1) | General
Fri, 28 Oct 2005 13:00:00 GMT
Libraries, technologies and progress : A ranting mess!
I've been working in the library sector now for almost two years, trying to work it out, suss out how they prefer to do things, and looking into how I can improve things.
Lately I've come to a number of conclusions, and they've slipped out of me in the shape of rants;
In short my point is that the library world are slow movers, embrace complexity and can't design smoot solutions to save themselves. What are we going to do about it? Damnit!Permalink (Fri, 28 Oct 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments (14) | General
Fri, 07 Oct 2005 13:00:00 GMT
Why are Topic Maps an either / or for most things?
My first flirt with Topic maps started about 5 years ago, and I wanted to share a little bit about my journey from Web user interface developer (which I was at that perticular point in time, although before that I've been everything from CTO, C hacker, movie-maker, musician, poet and driftwood through the rivers of gloom) to whatever I am today, especially in regards to Topic maps.
First of all, Topic maps re-introduced me to epistomology, being the buzz-word within the knowledge management scene in which I was working. (another rant for another day is how 'knowledge management' is a false meme) With Topic Maps I could take an important step away from buzz and towards the actual meaning of the word; how do we know?
In my past I spent over 7 years in the security industry creating real-time video motion analysis tools with Artificial Intelligence and other methods, pondering about how we can make computers look at things a little bit more like a human. The key to these systems were to make them very analytical for processing, but rather fuzzy in their conclusions, a trait which today is recognised as good human values. But to make computers think like humans - being binary entities and all - this will never happen, at least not within that limited framework, but we surely can use them to fake and simulate some human traits.
So. How can we make the computer a little less machine, and a little more human? We introduce ontology. Yes, it's a buzz-word, but it is one of those that have come and gone through the ages. I remember it being there 15 years ago, and it is highly buzzwordly these days, perhaps even more now than ever. So what is it?
Ontology is a bunch of human words for whatever we want to work with. If we're in the lolly-business, words would be 'sugar', 'color', 'mixing', 'process', 'sales', 'consumation', and 'profit'. If we're in the mafia, words could be 'cousin', 'protection', 'gun', 'mama', 'godfather', and 'profit'. And so on. Often - but not always - within the concept of an ontology sits relationships between these words. And ontology is a set of words or even phrases that describe your area of interest. The bigger the interest, the bigger the ontology. (This growing ontology is also a problem in itself, and can often render your whole ontology useless, but that's a rant for yet another day. Hmm, someone should ask me to write a book.)
Because ontologies are "more human" in their approach to labeling things we do in the realm of computers, it is often thought that we're a step closer to making computers more usable. At least, that is what I thought. It is why Topic maps was so tempting for me to venture into. I did not only venture into it, but swallowed it and immersed myself in it.
What good does that do?
After drinking the Topic maps Kool-aid and devised my own Topic Maps tool, I wanted to use it more and more. Perhaps it was for getting more experience with it, to test its basis, to see if it really was as good as I thought. But sadly, finding projects that involves Topic maps has proven to be a bit of a challenge, and along the way I got entangled with just plain vanilla life, apart from the rare opportunity here and there. I've written a few articles about it, and I've held seminars and presentations, and use the core model of Topic maps in pretty much everything I do. And this last point is an important one!
Being exposed to ontologies, where words have relationships, and these relationships are important and have meaning, made me see things in a new light. As in epistomology, how do we know that the word 'fish' means those 'swimming' things in the 'sea'? How do we know what 'swims in' really mean? For example, when we swim in the sea we do it rather differently from when we swim in money, yet it's the same words that shape the relationships.
The meaning of the semantics of our relationships between things have huge impact on how we percieve things. For example, in a content management system you can have one blob of information that 'belongs to' another piece of blob, but is that true for all blobs? We give blobs names or types, as in 'this blob is a policy document', but will all policy documents fit into the type of whatever blob you originally thought your one policy document would fit into?
All this context and all these relationships and concepts and notions, they're a big part of how we percieve things. And how we percieve things is the key to how we further can make computers (and other tools as well) seem more human and friendly and helpful to us. The presentation and handling of information goes hand in hand, and in the past they've been two very different things. The ontology-based systems try at least to shorten the gap between them.
Working with Topic maps has made me think about the meaning of what my solutions present. And the meaning of what I present digs deep into the world of usability, and hence is the amalgam that saturates my work, and often my life. The psychology of human cognition has more to say about software development than any book about computer languages, methodologies, techniques or logic.
Unfortunately I've seen a lot of people getting excited about Topic maps, and then see the flame of promoting the standard slowly die out. The good news is that the spirit of it still remains. Perhaps its a weakness of Topic maps itself that it teaches you more about the surrounding thinking and practices than of the technicalities of the standard itself. Maybe, but I owe it a lot of thanks.
It is interesting for me to think back on my years of Topic maps experience, because it strike me that my main interest in it isn't the technical side of things but the philosophical side. And I guess that fits in well with my personal opinion on the Topic maps standard per se that it can be quite difficult to grasp for most people; you got to overcome the new ways of thinking about relationships first (quite a huge hurdle in itself!), you need to surpass the difference between a data-model, a mental model, the ontology and a technical specification (they are all different abstraction of the idea of "Topic Maps"), and you've got to have simple to use tools to see it in action (and none of them are currently simple, not even my own stuff. The closest I can think of is Ceryle ). All this is not easily done in an afternoon. In fact, as I recall, it took me months and months to get to a confident level with the whole shebang, perhaps even a couple of years! And now, after 5 years, I'm not willing to even remotely call myself an expert in it (even if others foolishly might do so :) ).
Having said all that, I'm still doing lots Topic maps stuff, albeit not with XTM (the Topic Maps XML interchange format), and I'll let you all see it in action in a few weeks time. Exciting times abreast.Permalink (Fri, 07 Oct 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments (4) | Topic maps
Tue, 04 Oct 2005 13:00:00 GMT
Life as an artful dodger
Lots of time have passed. Lots of things have happened. None of them really interesting.
The thing is, once you're inside doing interesting things, at some point they will turn mundane. What to others might be cutting-edge is to you more like yesterdays nappies. Technology is a fad; it is nothing without good ideas, and good ideas are eternal. Most of us got this thing the wrong way around. Some updates ;
Sorry for the low blogging. I've reached some kind of exhaustion-point with it all, being technology, blogging, epistomology, knowledge representation, whatever. I'll let you know if I snap out of it.Permalink (Tue, 04 Oct 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments (1) | General
Mon, 22 Aug 2005 13:00:00 GMT
Busy at work : Nearing completeness of exciting project
Just thought I'd pop my head into my blog to let you know why there is so little I write these days. First of all, I have too much to say, but I haven't got around to sort and group my thoughts for public display ... which is another way of saying that I haven't had the time to get my shit together. I will, soon enough.
The other reason is of course that I've been busy completing off a new search service here at The national Library of Australia that includes the following goodies (consider this a non-visual preview) ;
All in all, doing development of new services (in fact, this one is a redevelopment of an old service, but who cares?) the smart way. It has a development name of "Research and Reference", but it will most definitly have a different name when done. See this space at the end of this month.
A note to all those into library things out there : The next iteration (and we're doing small numerous releases, not the big-bang crap of the past) will include another project I've started which is called the HeatEngine, which creates semantic meaning between search-terms people search for (through looking at the activity logs) and our catalog (and all its MARC XML backend glory!), so that when people search for 'Ned Kelly' (famous Australian villain / hero) and the initial database have no record of such, the catalog (with its 8 million records) surely has, and we extract meaning from a) the subject headings of any record associated with 'Ned Kelly', b) regroup our search-results by this group, and Voila! c) Google can suck my Solanum tuberosum.
Until the end of this month, I'll be just a tad busy, but the interesting thing is that we're not stressed out about it. It is a comfertable busy, the one that makes you feel you're doing something right. I'm excited to tell you more about it once it hits the world. I'll let you know when. Until then.Permalink (Mon, 22 Aug 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments (0) | General
Tue, 09 Aug 2005 13:00:00 GMT
Thoughts on design
Lately things have gotten a bit out of hand. As much as I thought I was on top of things, then along comes some people who's supposed to be the mentors and great thinkers of certain paradigms (and hey! there's even an ISO standard! *shiver* ) These people I find myself not to agree with. Yes, shocker, horror, but I don't swallow their stuff blindly.
What's going on? Well, the dispute above is Human-centred Design vs. Activity-based design. I think Activity-based design is an important part of Human-centred design, so why the separation? No one has yet explained it in reasonable terms, but I think their gist is;
Doesn't this again comes down to; with good people you get good stuff, and with bad people you can get crap? I don't know, I tend to agree with Ziya from the SIGI-A mailing-list: "Best-practice is a set of guidelines you follow if you haven't got a clue what to do." And this is exactly what Human vs. activity design sounds to me.
I'm sure I'm missing something. Until then, I appoligse for the lack of postings here; life is more than busy.Permalink (Tue, 09 Aug 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments (0) | General
Tue, 26 Jul 2005 13:00:00 GMT
Electric brain and proxy thinking
Oh dear, what is going on? Particles race across my brain, trying hard to inflict a more permanent pattern of some kind of knowledge! Help, a rant is coming on!
Some time has passed since my last update. I've been reading. And contemplating. And philosophised. And concluded. The world, as I knew it, has gone from one to the other. A more technical posting is expected tomorrow. Until then;
There is no place like home!
Indeed, there isn't even a place that I call home anymore. I've moved pretty much all my life, and even though I moved overseas on a few occasions I always came back to my home town of Oslo. I can't say that anymore. Now, there is a new reality for me; home is where I place my hat (to quote an Australian song), not where my friends might be.
Friends. What an odd word it is; some times it means people we love, other times people we know, and then again it means someone we have some kind of association with no matter how opaque. Moving away from "home" to a new place makes you look a little closer at what friends are, and I can tell you that finding new friends is tough, really tough, especially for someone like me.
Someone like me
I've had a few issues lately about raising my children. Like most other parents, I raise my children in my image (like the good Gods we pretend to be), but lately I've looked at myself and thought that even as much as I like being me, I don't want my children to be like me. Odd thought maybe, but this is what I am;
I'm a knowledge experimenter with a fetish for epistomology, which mean that if you say "Did you know ..." there is a good chance I'll reply "No, and neither do you!" Any conversation built on the notion that we know anything (as in facts) just doesn't grok with me, and since I love to talk, discuss and propagate information, I blend my knowledge (Hah!) into the discussions, almost certainly losing people along the way.
I'm also a music buff; it is my passion in life! It guides me, shapes me, form my thoughts and emotions and occupies a great deal of what I'm all about, conversation or action. The problem is of course that I'm passionate about a very small fraction of all music; that which falls into certain categories within certain periods, like baroque madrigals for two voices or more, with continuo. How bloody specific can you get before you can't talk to anyone but your mirror about your biggest passion in life?
I'm a firm believer in the anti-methodology methodology. If someone comes along and suggests a methodology for doing my work, I will firmly tell them to shove it up their religious omnibus; just as in "knowledge" there are as many ways of doing things good as there are good ways to do things. There is no singular better, only the hazy plural! I just can't belive that people don't see this as nature shows us all the time. How can I "manage projects without templates" they balk! It is astounding that so few project managers don't see it as people management.
All in all, I'm somewhat of a bore! My wife, who is the social extrapolation of me, tells me all the time; stop talking about this high-level fluffy stuff, and try to enjoy yourself a little. She is wise, but I'm weak. I can't stop, and hence, I do not wish any of my children to become like me. I'm not having fun. I want to have more fun. But I can't.
What I consider fun
Fun is a fun word, and has as many implications as there are interpreters of the word itself. My own world is a bit skewed; I can't enjoy something I don't understand, which means that as I understand things I clearly see why it isn't funny anymore. Mystery works in that way, doesn't it? Something is mysterious and fun until you figure out that mirror A reflects hand-movement B smoking out foot-motion C, and voila! the trick goes from fun and entertaining to neat but logical.
So what things haven't I figured out yet? Well, why we think object-oriented programming is so cool, for example. Or why usability seems like magic to most people. Or why people can't get out of the way when I'm in a hurry, but more waddle along like cows on a grassy hill with not a care for what goes on around it. Also I haven't figured out how to make a million dollars. Nor why my kids can't be less messy eaters at the dinner table. Nor have I figured out why algorithmic citation-linked historiography should have any impact on the TAO methods I use in some of our bibliographical user-interfaces.
So there is tons of stuff I haven't figured out that has some potential of being 'fun'. And yet there are only three things in my life that I find gives me 'fun', and they coincide with the categories 'love' and 'drives me up the wall sometimes' as well; wife, child A and child B. Everything else in the universe is not important.Permalink (Tue, 26 Jul 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments (1) | General
Wed, 13 Jul 2005 13:00:00 GMT
Slow car and an XSLT article
It's been a bit slow around my blog lately, mostly due to the heavy workload of catching up after my surgery. On a positive note, I have started to write several articles, one of which will be rather cool for Topic maps and XML lunatics. I'm writing it for the norwegian site HardWare Bedrift who just published my translated XSLT article (which you'll find in English over here).
I'm also getting reasonably close to finishing off some exciting projects at work that I'll link to. I also have a rant about libraries in the new world coming up. Until then, enjoy whatever you're doing.
What's all this got to do with cars? Nothing. QED.
Read the full story at < Slow car and an XSLT article >Permalink (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments (0) | General
Mon, 4 Jul 2005 13:00:00 GMT
I've sorted, grouped and uploaded to Flickr.com some of my favourite photos I've taken since I moved to Canberra, Australia, and I've added a badge in the right hand column, too. You can view them here. Let me know what you think. As you can see, I like close-ups, nature, elements, light and shade and colors that traverse logical boundries.
Read the full story at < Flickr goodness >Permalink (Mon, 4 Jul 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments (1) | General
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